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Academic & Professional Books  Organismal to Molecular Biology  Genetics

Genetics in the Madhouse The Unknown History of Human Heredity

By: Theodore M Porter(Author)
447 pages, 20 b/w illustrations
Genetics in the Madhouse delves deep into the asylum archives and tells how this little-known chapter of history was important to the study of human heredity.
Genetics in the Madhouse
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  • Genetics in the Madhouse ISBN: 9780691203232 Paperback Jul 2020 Usually dispatched within 4 days
  • Genetics in the Madhouse ISBN: 9780691164540 Hardback Jun 2018 Usually dispatched within 4 days
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About this book

In the early 1800s, a century before there was any concept of the gene, physicians in insane asylums began to record causes of madness in their admission books. Almost from the beginning, they pointed to heredity as the most important of these causes. As doctors and state officials steadily lost faith in the capacity of asylum care to stem the terrible increase of insanity, they began emphasizing the need to curb the reproduction of the insane. They became obsessed with identifying weak or tainted families and anticipating the outcomes of their marriages. Genetics in the Madhouse is the untold story of how the collection and sorting of hereditary data in mental hospitals, schools for "feebleminded" children, and prisons gave rise to a new science of human heredity.

In this compelling book, Theodore Porter draws on untapped archival evidence from across Europe and North America to bring to light the hidden history behind modern genetics. He looks at the institutional use of pedigree charts, censuses of mental illness, medical-social surveys, and other data techniques – innovative quantitative practices that were worked out in the madhouse long before the manipulation of DNA became possible in the lab. Porter argues that asylum doctors developed many of the ideologies and methods of what would come to be known as eugenics, and deepens our appreciation of the moral issues at stake in data work conducted on the border of subjectivity and science.

A bold rethinking of asylum work, Genetics in the Madhouse shows how heredity was a human science as well as a medical and biological one.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Slightly arcane topic, but solidly researched
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Oct 2018 Written for Hardback

    Ask most biologists about the history of genetics and they will likely mention Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the double helix structure of DNA or the work of the monk Gregor Mendel that showed a simple form of trait inheritance. Professor of History Theodore M. Porter contends that there is another, largely forgotten side to this story. Long before words such as genetics and genes had been coined, the fledgeling discipline of psychiatry was recording details of patients in mental asylums, collecting vast amounts of data on human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is a deep dive into the archives to reveal this little-known history.

    I first saw this book mentioned in Zimmer’s recent book She Has Her Mother's Laugh. One narrative strand that ran through that book was the contribution of mental institutes to ideas of human heredity. Porter here tells that story in three parts, told largely chronologically.

    In Europe, large-scale construction of public mental asylums started from the 1800s onwards. In Britain, the 1808 County Asylum Act called for asylums in every British county, while a similar 1838 law in France aimed at asylums in every French département. The intake of new patients quickly became an almost unstoppable tide, with tens if not hundreds of thousands institutionalised. There was much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair in response, as observers thought the world was literally going crazy.

    Almost from the beginning, doctors started recording details of patients upon admission, and from the beginning, heredity was assumed to play a role. Porter has examined archival material around Europe in Norway, Switzerland, and Italy, but especially in Germany, France and the UK, as well as in the USA. He reveals here how doctors initially were taking free-form notes on patient histories and then started tabulating them. Although information was being circulated amongst different institutes in the form of annual reports and new scholarly publications, there was a lack of standardisation. Every asylum had its own preferred method of data recording and was keen to stick to it. The different proposals to standardise recording of patient details are one thread in Porter’s story. Though universal agreement was never reached, the German’s had a good stab at it, collecting standardised data on a national level by the end of the 1800s using a system of cards stored in filing cabinets. Over time, the practice of drawing up pedigree tables became another tool of the trade.

    If I read Porter’s book right, heredity of mental disorders was at this point still little more than a supposition based on common-sense observation. Although some of the numbers seemed to bear this out, different countries reported massively different fractions of their population afflicted by certain disorders. This did not go unnoticed at the time, fueling further discussions on methodology and data collection.

    The rediscovery of Mendel’s famous crossing experiments with peas (see Mendel's Legacy and Gregor Mendel) gave a renewed boost to the idea that mental disorders had a genetic underpinning. It seems that claims for the existence of a “gene for (fill in your favourite trait)” have a far longer history than I thought. There was much torturing of data to make them fit the expected Mendelian inheritance patterns. This too became the subject of much criticism and was abandoned again.

    However, if plant and animal breeders could select for traits and against others, could we not do the same in humans? From the start, one aim of asylums was to cure patients. But success rates, much fudged in the records, were very poor. Could selective breeding in humans quell the epidemic of mental disorder? And so we stand at the top of the slippery slope of eugenics and the idea of human perfectibility. Before Nazi Germany turned this topic into a chapter of history most people would rather forget about altogether, eugenics became fashionable in the USA, though its methods were no more gentle. Eugenicists took great interest in the data recorded by asylums. Eugenics is a huge topic and Porter only touches on its beginnings, ending his history in the 1930s. Readers might want to turn to, for example, The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics for a fuller picture.

    By the end of the book, I was left with some questions. Coming to this topic as an outsider, I was curious to know: was the perceived outburst of insanity in the 18th and 19th century real or imagined? To paraphrase a well-known saying: if you build asylums, the mentally ill will come. Was this just a symptom of us getting to grips with the scale of mental illness in society? On the other hand, as Porter mentions here, marriages within extended families were not uncommon in remote backwaters, and I don’t think women knew or were advised to avoid excessive alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Today, both are recognized as risk factors that can lead to developmental disorders.

    Similarly, Porter contends that all this data collection by asylums was a relevant chapter in the history of genetics. But their reliability and comparability were already questioned back then. Have any of these data actually led to useful insights? Or have the handwavy hunches that heredity was somehow involved merely been confirmed by later work? I lean towards thinking the former. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Zimmer recounts how the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria was identified by studying mentally ill people, but Porter provides no such examples.

    Porter previously authored the biography Karl Pearson, which led to him writing this book. Thus, it comes as no surprise if I say that he is fascinated by statistics. And his interest as a historian here is in methods of data recording, development of statistical techniques, and the accompanying academic discussions. Zimmer, in contrast, painted a more human picture by focusing not on technique and methodology, but on the lives of some of the mental patients that played a large role in this history.

    My point with this is that, yes, Genetics in the Madhouse is well written, fascinating in places, but I cannot deny that its subject matter is quite arcane. General readers might want to start with Zimmer’s book before venturing further. However, readers interested in the history of science, specifically that of psychiatry or genetics, should seek this book out. This is top-notch scholarship that is solidly researched.
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Theodore M. Porter is Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Peter Reill Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (all Princeton). He lives in Altadena, California.

By: Theodore M Porter(Author)
447 pages, 20 b/w illustrations
Genetics in the Madhouse delves deep into the asylum archives and tells how this little-known chapter of history was important to the study of human heredity.
Media reviews

"I suspect this bold, dauntingly well-documented book will prove difficult to dismiss."
– David Dobbs, Nature

"By following the technologies of paperwork and data collection, Porter has unearthed a radically new history of human genetics, one that evokes not the double helix but the humble filing cabinet."
– Emily M. Kern, Science

"Fascinating but scary. Genetics in the Madhouse [...] uses date collection in psychiatric hospitals to show the stages when research straddles subjectivity and science."
– Liz Else and Simon Ings, New Scientist

"Porter takes a fascinating look at early attempts to tame unruly minds with big data and statistics."
– Bruce Bower, Science News

"Deeply researched and deftly argued."
– Gregory Radick, Times Literary Supplement

"[An] absorbing account of the role played by mental illness studies in gaining an early understanding of human heredity."
– Robin McKie, The Observer

"Genetics in the Madhouse provides a fascinating examination of investigations of human heredity, conducted long before DNA could be studied in laboratories."
– Glenn Altschuler, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Genetics in the Madhouse has the power to inspire, to captivate and to stimulate further research."
– Nicholas P. Hatton, Medical History

"Porter commands an impressive array of languages, and where his own knowledge falters, he has employed assistance to allow him to survey other sources that would otherwise have remained out of reach."
– Andrew Scull, Brain Journal of Neurology

"Porter has read voluminously in the secondary literature historians of psychiatry have produced. But more importantly, having done so, he has engaged in a positively prodigious amount of work in the archives. One can only admire the persistence and the diligence with which he has combed through an extraordinary array of materials [...] Genetics in the Madhouse is gracefully written, and Porter only occasionally gets bogged down in the minutiae of the archival materials he has spent so much time exploring."
– Andrew Scull, Brain

"[A] bold, dauntingly well-documented book."
– David Dobbs, Nature

"Genetics in the Madhouse has the power to inspire, to captivate and to stimulate further research."
– Nicholas P. Hatton, Medical History

"Porter has unearthed a radically new history of human genetics, one that evokes not the double helix but the humble filing cabinet."
– Emily M. Kern, Science

"[An] absorbing – and frequently disturbing – account of the role played by mental illness studies in gaining an early understanding of human heredity."
– Robin McKie, The Guardian

"An exhaustive and thoroughly original study of human heredity research."
– David Oshinsky, New York Review of Books

"Porter serves as a captivating and intriguing guide into the largely uncredited history of statistical and genetic data derived from the pre-Mendelian asylums, prisons, and schools. Genetics in the Madhouse succeeds in illuminating our present concepts of heredity and eugenics by leaning into the complexities of human science."
– Aaron T. Beck, University of Pennsylvania

"Genetics in the Madhouse is a fascinating examination of the role played by big data in the history of genetics and its subsequent exploitation in the disgraced science of eugenics. Porter weaves together complex elements of historical influences, personalities, and seismic events almost like a novel, but the difference is that his story cannot have a neat and tidy resolution. Beautifully written and admirably researched, this is an enthralling book."
– Catharine Arnold, author of Bedlam: London and Its Mad

"Important and original. Drawing on a wealth of archival research in many languages across many different national settings, Porter reexamines the role of psychiatry in the study of human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is an enormously impressive book."
– Andrew Scull, author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

"A very significant contribution to the history of the human sciences, statistics, and eugenics. Porter rewards readers not only with astonishing insights into nineteenth-century data collection on the mentally ill and feebleminded, but also with the pleasure of reading a good, intriguing story."
– Staffan Müller-Wille, coauthor of A Cultural History of Heredity

"We've all been taught how genetics got its start in Mendel's pea patch. But the real story is more complicated, and a lot more interesting. In Genetics in the Madhouse, Theodore Porter chronicles some of the early history of heredity – not in gardens, but in asylums. The book is a fascinating exploration of the long-running conviction that madness, criminality, and other mental traits can be passed down from parent to child."
– Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: What Heredity Is, Is Not, and May Become

"Porter's masterful book casts the fresh light of sanity over a previously uncharted sea of data on madness. He brings analytical order to an intriguingly chaotic subject, illuminating the challenges of 'big data' from a past era when the plasticity of categorization resulted in data being deduced from conclusions, a problem with uncanny similarities to those we face today."
– Stephen M. Stigler, author of The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom

"Porter brilliantly reveals the debt that the science of human heredity owes to the data gathering, numerical tables, and statistical interpretations that emerged from attempts to account for mental and physical disease among patients in asylums, hospitals, and prisons. Richly informed by archival sources, his book is masterfully argued, lucidly written, and boldly original. A landmark in the history of medicine, science, and mental illness."
– Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity

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