Event Report: ‘Mediating Emotion, Making Trauma: Doctors, Patients and the Construction of “Shell-Shock” in First World War Britain’

The third, and penultimate, event in the series of collaborative workshops on First World War civilian war trauma funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh took place on 13 October. The event was well attended by historians and researchers from Stirling, Strathclyde and Dundee, as well as postgraduate students from several universities and engaged in a variety of research areas.

The lecture, delivered by Dr Tracey Loughran, was entitled ‘Mediating Emotion, Making Trauma: Doctors, Patients and the Construction of “Shell-Shock” in First World War Britain’. Tracey’s thought-provoking lecture contemplated the way in which doctors and patients dealt with the effects of war and opened with a fascinating case study of one of hundreds of soldiers treated by Canadian-born Lewis Yealland for shell-shock during the First World War.

One of the first doctors in Britain to incorporate electricity into the systematic treatment of shell shock, Yealland’s treatment integrated electrical stimulation with a variety of other—psychological and physical—interventions. Using original case records of his treatment of soldiers suffering from shell shock, Dr Loughran told the tale of a young man who had been heavily involved in the war, in Marne, Aisne and Ypres. Yealland’s ‘Case A1’, a 24-year-old Private, had been rendered mute having collapsed in Salonica. Over a course of months many attempts had been made to cure the soldier: electricity had been applied to his neck; hot plates had been placed at the back of his mouth; and hypnotism had been tried. However, Yealland identified an alternative method of treatment involving the application of an electrical current to his throat with the charge gradually weakened. While the current was applied the Private was simultaneously instructed to walk up and down the room repeating the vowel sounds he had begun to utter. Five hours later, having been rendered silent for nine months, the case of mutism was resolved. This case was not unique—Dr Loughran identified several other patients suffering from similar conditions, recounting their experiences in fascinating detail.

The lecture went on to reveal the way in which wartime experiences altered the doctor/patient relationship. As this group of doctors was for the first time confronted with men traumatised by the effects of war they were greeted with emotions previously unknown, or previously concealed. For Loughran, the effective treatment of these returning soldiers hinged upon a doctor’s understanding of, and empathy for, the soldiers’ past experiences. Indeed, it was this compassion, shown towards shell-shocked men, that generated new, more holistic, approaches to the doctor/patient relationship—approaches that exist to this day. It also led this group of doctors to amend the case study approach so starkly demonstrated in Yealland’s Case A1 in which the doctor became more likely to discuss their personal reactions and experiences in light of the symptoms shown. Concluding, Dr Loughran reiterated the way in which the First World War marked a turning point in the history of neurological treatment. As clinicians were provided with the opportunity and resources to treat and evaluate large numbers of patients with similar symptoms, the way was paved for a more psychologically-based treatment approach. A lively Q&A session followed Dr Loughran’s lecture as numerous attendees praised the innovative nature of the research topic and contemplated the potential for broadening the scope to include, among other suggestions, a transatlantic dimension.

Following this excellent lecture our next event will be Workshop 4 – on Wednesday 22 November at 5.15pm, when Dr Christophe Declercq (University of Antwerp/University College London) will give a lecture entitled ‘Settlement, treatment and employment of French-speaking Belgian refugees in France, the Netherlands, England and Scotland’. The lecture will be held at the Appleton Tower, Room 2.06, University of Edinburgh. The event is free but, for catering purposes, we ask that you please confirm your attendance with Véronique Desnain (veronique.desnain@ed.ac.uk) by 1 November 2017.

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