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Program Information
Human Rights
Speech
Robert Whitaker
 Fred Nguyen  Contact Contributor
The History of Eugenics in the United States & How It Affects Psychiatric Care Today
Robert Whitaker
Although we usually associate eugenics with Nazi Germany, it was here in the United States that eugenic laws were first passed. In the early part of the 20th century, states passed laws that prevented the “insane” from marrying; eugenicists argued, with much success, that the mentally ill needed to be segregated from society in mental hospitals, in order to keep them from passing on their “bad genes;” and in 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was constitutional to forcibly sterilize the mentally ill.
These eugenic conceptions of the mentally ill, as essentially “unfit” for society, also set the stage for the introduction of therapies in the 1930s and 1940s, that were understood to “work” by damaging the brain. Frontal lobotomy, which involved destroying the patient’s frontal lobes, was one of these therapies.
Today, we think that such eugenic impulses have been scrubbed from our society’s treatment of those with psychiatric diagnoses. But it is easy to see that our society still prescribes treatments that, in their effects, have some similarities to the treatments used in the 1940s; that our society is expanding its forcible treatment for those deemed mentally ill; and that the modern effort in research circles to identify the genetic causes of mental illness encourages our society to think of people so diagnosed as having “broken brains,” and really not quite “fit.”
By understanding this past, and how it can provide an understanding for the present, we can perhaps imagine a different future, with our society embracing a paradigm of care that is free from such eugenic impulses.
Robert Whitaker is a journalist and author of four books. Much of his writing has focused on psychiatry, the pharmaceutical industry, and medical histories. His first book, Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill was named by Discover magazine as one of the best science books of 2002. His second, The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder and Survival in the Amazon, was named by the American Library Association as one of the best biographies of 2004. In 2008, Crown published On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation, which was awarded the Anthony J. Lukas work-in-progress prize. His newest book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, won the Investigative Reporters and Editors book award for best investigative journalism in 2010.
Prior to writing books, Robert Whitaker worked as the science and medical reporter at the Albany Times Union newspaper in New York for a number of years. His journalism articles won several national awards, including a George Polk award for medical writing, and a National Association of Science Writers’ award for best magazine article. A series he co-wrote for The Boston Globe was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.


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02:01:12 1 May 2, 2012
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