Birkbeck Historians Launch Trauma Project

Birkbeck historians have launched a project into the study of trauma in science and medicine.

The Birkbeck Trauma Project, led by Professor Joanna Bourke and Dr Louise Hide of the College’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, will explore the production and experience of violence and aggression within scientific, medical, and societal contexts over the past two centuries.

The interdisciplinary research initiative builds on the work of the Birkbeck Pain Project – a study funded by the Wellcome Trust which set out to investigate how people-in-pain between the eighteenth century and the present made sense of their suffering and sought to communicate it to other people.

Supported by the Birkbeck Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF), the new project will investigate trauma as a construct within medical and scientific discourse, and in negotiation with social worlds.

Through the project’s dedicated website, the academics aim to connect to colleagues across a range of disciplines – including the arts, humanities, social sciences, and biomedical sciences – as well as disseminate information and news relating to their own and other cutting-edge research in the field.

Explaining the significance of this area of research, Prof Bourke said: “Trauma is one of the most important concepts in modern history, and understanding the significance that people and societies have given to traumatic events over time provides us with valuable insights into its role and meaning today.

“Life-changing events – such as combat, sexual assault, and incarceration in an asylum or orphanage – affect people in different ways. Time and place also matter: for example, the experience of shell-shock suffered by artillery men fighting in the First World War is different from the PTSD that torments soldiers returning from Afghanistan.

“If we want to understand traumatic responses, we need to pay attention to the specificities of a person’s life, including historical, cultural, and inter-personal contexts.”

Prof Bourke and Dr Hide are also organising, with Dr Ana Antic from the Reluctant Internationalists project, a major academic conference relating to this topic, due to take place at Birkbeck on 15-16 April 2016. ‘Cultures of harm in institutions of care. Historical and contemporary perspectives’ will feature keynote speakers Professors Allan Young (McGill University) and Richard Bessel (University of York). The call for papers is now live online.

Find out more

Image credit: Fig. 75, ‘The Room of Recovery’ from Frederick Walter Mott, War Neurosis and Shell Shock (1919). Wellcome Library, London

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