Back to the future

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Title Back to the future: Valentin Magnan, French psychiatry, and the classification of mental diseases, 1885-1925
Author(s) Ian R. Dowbiggin
Journal Social History of Medicine [Great Britain]
Date 1996
Volume 9
Issue 3
Start page 383
End page 408
Abstract One of the most curious gaps in the historiography of French psychiatry is the era between the fin de siecle and the 1920's, years that overlapped the life and career of Valentin Magnan (1835-1916), a pivotal figure in the historical classification of mental diseases. Magnan was in many ways a tragic figure, someone who lived and worked at a time when circumstances conspired against him and his efforts to reform psychiatric classification. Essentially Magnan had the misfortune to practice psychiatry when Emil Kraepelin's influence began to spread beyond Germany's borders, sparking a nationalist reaction that penalized both French Kraepelinians and Magnan, whose theories shared similarities with Kraepelin's. But Magnan's stature also suffered because of the intense internecine quarrels that arose in late-19th-century French psychiatry. Magnan was no helpless victim, though, and there is reason to believe that some of the criticism directed at him was based on documented personal failings. Ultimately, Magnan's theory of psychiatric classification was overtaken by these and other events in French psychiatry, culminating in the emergence of a new national nosological paradigm that has dominated French psychiatry for most of the 20th century. Magnan was in many respects a pariah within French psychiatry by the early 20th century. An examination of his career casts light on this crucial turning-point in the history of French psychiatry and indicates why and how the new model of classification was more to the tastes of his medical colleagues.

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