UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Sarah Chaney



Thesis Title: Self-Mutilation and Psychiatry: Impulse, Identity and the Unconscious in British Explanations of Self-Inflicted Injury, c. 1864 – 1914

Modern accounts of “self-harm” commonly attribute self-inflicted wounds with emotional or other psychological “meaning”, while assuming that these acts are a product of twentieth-century concerns. While self-harm is certainly a modern concept, the attribution of meaning to self-inflicted injury – above and beyond the physical existence of the wounds themselves – is not new. This thesis explores the way in which medical writers in the later nineteenth century understood and explained what they called “self-mutilation”, situating this debate within the history of asylum psychiatry (where most discussion occurred). Self-mutilation as a concept, it is argued, could only exist within the context of a prior understanding of “the self” as a specific physical and psychological entity, and physiological, anthropological and psychological approaches to selfhood are closely associated with medical attention to self-injury.

While it might have been expected that writing on self-mutilation emerged from the bureaucratic nature of the contemporary asylum system, and psychiatric concern with the expansion of diagnostic nosologies, this was not necessarily the case. In fact, most of the alienists writing on this topic did not embrace “medical materialism” and hereditary models of illness wholeheartedly, but drew on a wide variety of fields – including anthropology, normal psychology, spiritualism and religious and literary allegory – in their efforts to understand self-injurious acts. This approach encouraged the idea that self-mutilation described more than just a physical wound, but was an act which could be analysed to uncover underlying mental or emotional meaning. In the writings and practices of these psychiatrists and, indeed, in cases of so-called “insane self-mutilation” reported more widely, I show that ideas and attitudes towards self-mutilation in this period can also inform the historian about ideas of the human condition, normal versus abnormal behaviour, and the very idea of selfhood.


Sonu Shamdasani and Roger Cooter


• “Anaesthetic Bodies and the Absence of Feeling: Pain and Self-Mutilation in Later Nineteenth-Century Psychiatry” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 15 (2012): Read Online

• “Foreign Bodies? Exploring the Human Body in Early Twentieth-Century Surgery”The Lancet, 380 (9847), 22 Sept 2012: 1050-1051Read Online

• “Dying Scientifically: sex and scandal in Victorian medicine” (Review of Katy Darby, “The Whore’s Asylum”) The Lancet, 379 (9831), 2–8 June 2012: 2042

• "‘A hideous torture on himself’: Madness and Self-mutilation in Victorian Literature" Journal of Medical Humanities,32:4 (2011): 279-89

• Review of George C. Grinnell, "The Age of Hypochondria: Interpreting Romantic Health and Illness" Social History of Medicine,24:3 (2011): 832-3

• "Self-Control, Selfishness and Mutilation: How 'Medical' is Self-Injury Anyway?"Medical History, 55:3 (2011): 375-83

• Review of "The Woman Who Walked into the Sea: Huntington’s and the Nature of Genetic Disease"Annals of Science, Online publication 11 Jan 2011.

• “Behaviour: Historical Keyword” The Lancet, 376 (9756), 4 Dec 2010: 1893.


Damaging the Body (ongoing, see:http://damagingthebody.org)

The issue of what exactly comprises damage to the physical body is a topic of great contemporary concern, from both medical and cultural perspectives. While such concerns have received critical attention in the realm of disability studies, the full extent of the topic has yet to be explored within the history of medicine. For example, what constitutes such modern categories as “self-harm”, addiction and cosmetic body modification, and how have these been constructed medically and socially in relation to body, mind and self? By presenting these topics from a historical perspective, these seminars encourage reflection on medical and non-medical concepts of damage, which, it will be argued, cannot be regarded as a natural category. The very term “damage” itself is problematic and unstable. A workshop and seminar series discusses the questions raised by interdisciplinary approaches to these questions.


November 2012,Rhythm is a Dancer: Can you kick it? Wellcome Collection event (London), speaking on the history of hysteria.

November 2012,Pathology Museum History of Medicine Seminar Series,“All Roads Lead to Bethlem”: Patients and Practitioners in the Nineteenth-Century Asylum, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

November 2012,London Deanery School of Psychiatry Annual Trainee Conference 2012,“My mind is like a London sausage: full of mystery”: Patients and Psychiatrists in Victorian Bethlem, (London: Canary Wharf).

September 2012,Society for the Social History of Medicine Annual Conference: Emotions, Health and Well-Being, On the Borderland: Affect and Attention-Seeking in Hysterical Malingering; Queen Mary, University of London.

June 2012,Situating and Interpreting States of Mind conference, 1700-2000, Northumbria University (Newcastle), “Genus patient (species: “Voluntary”)”: The Representation and Interpretation of Self in the Late Nineteenth-Century Asylum.

April 2012, English National Opera Debate: “Madness and Sanity are often two sides of the same coin” (panellist)

February 2012,Challenging History Conference, City University London. Workshop on Francis Galton's Centenary: Commemorating Contentious Legacies – A Case Study in Bethlem with Debbie Challis (Petrie Museum, UCL).

December 2011,Psychoanalysis and History Seminar Series: Institute of Historical Research: "The single swallow does not make a summer": Psychological Approaches in Late Nineteenth-century Asylum Case Histories

November 2011,Panel Discussion on Galton's Asylum Photographs: Case Studies from the Bethlem Archives at the Petrie Museum, UCL

September 2011,Body and Mind in the History of Medicine and Health (EAHMH Conference); Utrecht, Netherlands: The Sympathy of Body and Mind in the Work of Daniel Hack Tuke

June 2011, Mastering the Emotions; Queen Mary, University of London: Impulse, Self-Control and Civilization in Late Nineteenth Century Britain

June 2011, Biography and its Place in the History of Psychiatry; University College London: Motive Power and the Individual Patient in Late Nineteenth-Century Asylum Case Histories

April 2011, Medicine at the Margins; University of Glamorgan, Wales: Self-Mutilation and the Threat of Civilisation in late Nineteenth Century Society

January 2011, British Society for the History of Science Annual Postgraduate Conference, Manchester, UK; ‘An enigma in life and a puzzle in death’: Moral Insanity, Self-Mutilation and the Nineteenth Century ‘Self’

August 2010, The First International Health Humanities Conference: Madness and Literature, Nottingham, UK; ‘A Hideous Torture on Himself’: Self-Mutilation and Victorian Literature

July 2010, The Future of Medical History, Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, London, UK; Selfishness, Society and Mutilation: How medical is self-injury anyway?

March 2010, British Psychological Society History & Philosophy of Psychology Section Annual Conference, Edinburgh, UK; ‘The hidden and painful secret of the mental Life’: The Psychopathology of Suicide in mid-19th century England

January 2010, British Society for the History of Science Annual Postgraduate Conference, Cambridge, UK; Self-Mutilation and Psychiatry in late Nineteenth Century England

2005 – 2009: Various public talks, workshops and education sessions at London museums