Monday workshop
Monday, April 16, 2018 - 3:30pm

337 Claudia Cohen Hall


The widespread use of Prozac starting in the late 1980s is seen as the start of a new era in psychiatric culture. Popular media treated Prozac as an iconic medicinal of the age, and scholarly work in the history of psychiatry often referred to a newly-arrived “Age of Prozac.” Prozac’s effects seemed to signal the need for a radical reevaluation not just of depression and its treatment, but of the very nature of the self. The phrase “just chemical” creeped into common descriptions of depressive disorder. News magazines proclaimed that Freud, literally dead since 1939, was now really, really dead. Ethicists fretted over what it meant for our moods and self if they can be so altered with a synthesized substance. These observations were curious, since drugs called antidepressants had been around since the 1950s, other powerful somatic treatments for mood disorders were developed during the heyday of Freudian psychiatry, and physiological treatments for depressed mood had been prescribed since antiquity. And, as Peter Kramer said in his emblematic but much misunderstood book Listening to Prozac (1993), the cultural hype over brain chemistry outstripped any corresponding scientific understanding of the brain.


The advent of Prozac did not just alter psychiatric culture, though. It also led to large changes in the historiography of psychiatry, of both emphasis and interpretation. This paper will consider the gains and losses of these shifts for our historical grasp of depression. Drawing on the author’s previous work on the history of electroconvulsive therapy, as well as his just-begun work on the larger history of depression, the paper will show that historiographical reflection is a necessary precondition for a stronger grasp of the history of depression, now considered by the World Health Organization to be the single biggest contributor to the global burden of disease.