January, the Past and Fresh Starts
29 January, 2024
Images: Dr Claire Hilton: courtesy of RCPsych, Janus: Fresko N.N., Foto Maurizio Fabre, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons, Dr Gordon Bates: courtesy of Gordon Bates.
By Dr Gordon Bates, Historian in Residence at the RCPsych.
January is the month that marks the turn of the year. Its name derives from the Roman god, Janus. Statues and engravings show him to be literally two-faced. One profile faces the future and the other the past. Janus is the god of beginnings, endings, transition and time. An ideal figure for a historian. January 2024 is a time of transition, marking the end of Dr Claire Hilton’s tenure as the Historian in Residence (HiR) and the start of my own. The HiR is a relatively new role that was created by Claire, five years ago. Historians in Residence are a relatively new cultural innovation. Usually supported by large institutions, they are supposed to champion the value and importance of the relevant history in academic and public life.
With his two faces, Janus is also the God of duality. The HiR also needs this duality. The job description requires both a psychiatrist and a historian: a clinician experienced in the treatment of mental illness and an academic familiar with archival research and the methods of historical research. Of course, there are commonalities between these skill sets. One of my favourite definitions of history is that it is the stories we tell ourselves about the past for present purposes. For me, this is just as much a description of the work of a skilled psychiatrist. Taking a series of biographical facts from a patient’s life story and weaving a coherent new narrative which situates the present problems clearly in the context of the past and promotes new understanding. The psychiatrist and historian will look for causality and contributory factors and separate them from mere coincidence.
The college position of HiR has developed over time but over the last five years Claire has tirelessly answered historical questions from within the college, the general public and even the media. She has been too modest to publicise what she has achieved but I will rectify this. Her blogs have eloquently demonstrated the links between past and present, showing that hospitalising the mentally ill miles away from where they live was just as much of a problem 100 years ago as it is today. She has advised dozens of people on how to find details about their predecessor’s time in psychiatric hospital, both as staff and residents. She has made suggestions about appropriate archives and research methods. If Claire does not know the answer, she knows where to look and if she doesn't know where to look then she knows whom to ask.
Claire’s own research interests stem from her own specialty of old age psychiatry and the early part of the twentieth century. In addition to this college work, she sits on the History of Psychiatry Special Interest Group executive, reviews papers, organises conferences and still finds time to write her books: Improving Psychiatric Care for Older People: Barbara Robb’s Campaign, 1965-1975 and Civilian Lunatic Asylums During the First World War: A Study of Austerity on London's Fringe. The media work has been an unexpected aspect. Claire has offered historical authenticity and expertise contributing to such BBC programs as Call the Midwife and Who Do You Think You Are? She even appeared on Lucy Worsley's series on Agatha Christie, demonstrating her own star quality on camera.
So, as the god Janus marks the transition from Claire's term of office to my own what can readers expect? Firstly, I hope not too many changes. Claire has kindly agreed to help me not only with her own historical era but the critical business of where to look and whom to ask. My own areas of historical interest include the early history of the talking therapies, particularly hypnotism and suggestion, child mental health and the use of popular culture in research, from novels to films. Readers can expect to see these themes starting to appear in the regular college blogs.
I am really looking forward to getting some more direct feedback to what I write. The blogs are so much more immediate than writing academic articles, chapters and books. If you are interested by the subject of the blog or feel I have got something wrong or even if you have a completely unrelated question then please get in touch: Historian@rcpsych.ac.uk.