2003: Wellcome Witness Seminar: February 18, 2003

 

Craig Fees, Wellcome Witness Seminar: February 18, 2003 ‘Beyond the asylum: anti-psychiatry and care in the community’, Joint Newsletter 7 (2003), p. 16.

 

The Wellcome Trust’s History of Twentieth Century Medicine Group “was set up in 1990 to develop and strengthen links between members of the biomedical research community and medical historians, and to promote and facilitate the study of the history of twentieth-century medicine and medical science by encouraging the creation and deposit of material sources for use by present and future historians.” The recorded and transcribed Witness Seminars – “meetings to which individuals associated with a particular set of circumstances or events in recent medical history are invited to discuss, debate, agree or disagree amongst themselves about their reminiscences in a chairman-led meeting” – are one of its much-imitated information-gathering tools.

According to Programme Committee member Dr. Mark Jackson, the February 18th meeting resulted from the intersection of the ATC’s proposal for a Seminar on therapeutic community, in celebration of the ATC’s 30th anniversary, and a proposal he was formulating including asylums and care in the community. Chaired by Prof. Hugh Freeman, the room at the Wellcome was filled with giants in the history of psychiatry and therapeutic community, including, among the latter, David Anderson, Joseph Berke, Robert Hinshelwood, David Kennard, David Millard, Malcolm Pines, Morton Schatzman, Leon Redler, and Stuart Whiteley, with apologies, among others, from Harold Bridger, David Clark and John Wilder. With two microphones at the chairman’s table, and two roving mikes, the recording side of the meeting was well catered for. The four hour event was broken into eight separate topic sessions – Drug development, Scandals in mental hospitals, Civil liberties, Institutionalisation/Erving Goffman, Anti-psychiatry, Therapeutic communities, Care in the community, The closure of the asylums – preceded by the overall welcome, and by a brief historical introduction by Prof. Freeman. Each topic was opened with a pre-prepared five to ten minute introduction by someone from the audience, moving to the chair’s table; after which comments were invited from the floor, with microphones being taken to speakers identified by the chair, who identified themselves before speaking. To find ones’ self talking one-on-one about his Yorkshire childhood with Dr. Henry Rollin during the tea interval, or bucking up courage to try to follow on from comments by Prof. Dr. Michael Rutter during the main event, is remarkable.

The Twentieth Century Medicine Group has successfully completed almost thirty Witness Seminars, on topics as diverse as Intestinal Absorption, Maternal Care , and British Contributions to Medical Research and Education in Africa after the Second World War. This is a tremendous amount of experience, which one has to respect, and represents a huge investment in developing communication among the people who have been involved in each focal area, as well as with other contemporary professionals, current researchers and students (who form part of each audience), and future generations. In terms of generating new insights and knowledge, and certainly in regard to therapeutic community, however, it doesn’t seem to me that this particular meeting worked, for three basic reasons. The first is that it was simply too ambitious; with something under thirty minutes for each area, each of which could no doubt have filled an entire session. The second is that the determination of the categories for discussion presupposed a structure to their history and relationships, which – in my view – inhibited the introduction of wider, deeper or, certainly, other histories and relationships; where generation of new knowledge and insight is the object, such predetermination, unless balanced by time and freedom of movement, seems to me a contra-indication. And the third has to do with how memory and the flow of memory and shared experience are best elicited – and, perhaps more importantly, sustained. Speaking as an oral historian, it seems to me that the proscenium-based, chairman-led, equipment-tied procedure on this occasion was, almost necessarily, inhibiting.

But what if one had a chance to do it again, say for therapeutic community, what would one do differently? Simply dreaming, one might bring together in a circle in the middle of a room, or behind a curved table at the bottom of an auditorium Question Timestyle, a small group of key people. One could support them with a participating audience of colleagues, students and researchers. One would have multiple fixed microphones. And one would capture speakers on video cameras – at least two, perhaps more – leaving people free to think, fall back into themselves, and connect. Really dreaming, one could make an entire day conference of it, based in a combination of small groups and larger plenaries. And one could then sit back and watch the field change.