Recent decades have seen an outpouring of publications about psychological trauma. With its formal diagnostic category of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Western psychiatric medicine has led the way in opening up this field of study. Many other disciplines of inquiry, including sociology, anthropology, legal studies, and literary studies, also have contributed their distinctive approaches and methodologies to the subject. Most recently, professional historians in Britain, Germany, Austria, Australia, Canada, and the United States have researched the origins of PTSD to great effect. These “new historical trauma studies” draw heavily on pioneering medical research from earlier places and periods. In addition, empirical findings from and analytical insights into humanity’s troubled, traumatic past provide ideas, observations, and insights that may be useful for mental health practitioners today.
As early as 1981, historically informed physicians set out the general historical trajectory of medical investigations of psychotraumatology—from mid-Victorian investigations of “railway spine” (PTSD-like symptoms in passengers involved in railroad accidents) to contemporary debates over workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.1,2 Likewise, scholars with specialized interests had trawled medical-historical records to find cases of PTSD-like symptoms that followed acutely stressful, natural or man-made environmental experiences.3-6 What the newer historical trauma studies offer, however, is extensive insight into collective catastrophic experiences that are archivally researched and intricately reconstructed within the cultural and chronological contexts that shaped the traumatic experiences of contemporaries at the time.
World War I
Academically trained historians have recently brought the particularizing power of historical scholarship to bear on the well-known phenomenon of “shell shock” in World War I.7-13 The best-known diagnostic precursor of PTSD, shell shock encompassed a flood of neuropsychiatric symptoms that emerged in almost epidemic numbers among officers and infantry on both sides of the conflict. Studies about this condition drew on the discovery that modern industrialized warfare (which uses machine guns, motorized tanks, long-distance artillery, mustard gas and other chemical weapons, and barbed wire), with its unprecedented, long-distance killing power, was uniquely destructive of human psychic defenses. This was particularly true for soldiers who were involved in lengthy operations that were interspersed with long periods of immobility.14 In psychiatric and military history, the “Great War” brought the advent of modern PTSD as we know it.
1.Trimble MR. Post-Traumatic Neurosis: From Railway Spine to the Whiplash. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons; 1981.
2. Healy D. Images of Trauma: From Hysteria to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Boston: Faber and Faber; 1993.
3. Davy RJ. Samuel Pepys and post-traumatic stress disorder. Br J Psychiatry. 1983;143:64-68.
4. Hudson CJ. The first case of battle hysteria? Br J Psychiatry. 1990;157:150.
5. Vijselaar J, Van der Hart O. The first report of hypnotic treatment of traumatic grief: a brief communication. Int J Clin Exp Hypn. 1992;40:1-6.
6. Parry-Jones B, Parry-Jones WL. Post-traumatic stress disorder: supportive evidence from an eighteenth century natural disaster. Psychol Med. 1994;24:15-27.
7. Leese P. Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2002.
8. Lerner P. Hysterical Men, War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 2003.
9. Hofer HG. Nervenschwäche und Krieg: Modernitätskritik und Krisenbewältigung in der österreichischen Psychiatrie (1880-1920). Vienna: Böhlau; 2004.
10. Bianchi B. La psychiatrie italienne et la guerre. In: Becker Jean-Jacques et al, eds. Guerre et Cultures, 1914-1918. Paris: Armand Colin; 1994:118-131.
11. Micale MS, Lerner P, eds. Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2001.
12.Van der Hart O, Brown P, Graafland M. Trauma-induced dissociative amnesia in World War I combat soldiers. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 1999;33:37-46.
13. Van der Hart O, Van Dijke A, Van Son M, Steele K. Somatoform dissociation in traumatized World War I combat soldiers: a neglected clinical heritage. J Trauma Dissociation. 2000;1:33-66.
14. Leed EJ. No Man’s Land: Combat & Identity in World War I. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 1979.
15. Binneveld H. From Shellshock to Combat Stress: A Comparative History of Military Psychiatry. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press; 1997.
16. Farrell K. Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the Nineties. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1998.
17. Raitt S, Tate T, eds. Women’s Fiction and the Great War. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press; 1997.
18. Skidmore JM. The Trauma of Defeat: Ricarda Huch’s Historiography During the Weimar Republic. New York: Peter Lang; 2005.
19. Winter J. Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2006.
20. Shephard B. A War of Nerves: Soldiers and Psychiatrists in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2001.
21. Pols H. War neurosis, adjustment problems in veterans, and an ill nation: the disciplinary project of American psychiatry during and after World War II. Osiris. 2007;22:72-92.
22. Dean ET Jr. Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1997.
23. Dean ET Jr. “We will all be lost and destroyed”: post-traumatic stress disorder and the Civil War. Civ War Hist. 1991;37:138-153.
24. Anderson DL, Anderson GT. Nostalgia and malingering in the military during the Civil War. Perspect Biol Med. 1984;28:156-166.
25. Talbott JE. Combat trauma in the American Civil War. Hist Today. 1996;46:41-47.
26. Talbott JE. Soldiers, psychiatrists, and combat trauma. J Interdiscip Hist. 1997;27:437-454.
27. Herschbach L. Fragmentation and Reunion: Medicine, the Body, and the American Civil War [dissertation]. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1996.
28. Micale MS. Hysterical Men: The Hidden History of Male Nervous Illness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2008.
29. Micale MS. Medical and literary discourses of trauma in the age of the American Civil War. In: Stiles A, ed. Neurology and Literature, 1860-1920. New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2007:187-188.
30. Brunnert K. Nostalgie in der Geschichte der Medizin. Düsseldorf, Germany: Triltsch; 1984.
31. Cardyn L. The construction of female sexual trauma in turn-of-the-century American mental medicine. In: Micale MS, Lerner P, eds. Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930 Traumatic Pasts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; 2001.
32. Cardyn L. Sexual terror in the Reconstruction South. In: Clinton C, Silber N, eds. Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press; 2006.
33. Cardyn L. Sexualized racism/gendered violence: outraging the body politic in the Reconstruction South. Mich Law Rev. 2002;100:675-867.
34. Cardyn L. Sexualized Racism/Gendered Violence: Trauma and the Body Politic in the Reconstruction South [dissertation]. New Haven, CT: Yale University; 2003.