This edited volume offers the first comprehensive historical overview of the Belgian medical field in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its chapters develop narratives that go beyond traditional representations of medicine in national overviews, which have focused mostly on state–profession interactions. Instead, the chapters bring more complex histories of health, care and citizenship. These new histories explore the relation between medicine and a variety of sociopolitical and cultural views and realities, treating themes such as gender, religion, disability, media, colonialism, education and social activism. The novelty of the book lies in its thorough attention to the (too often little studied) second half of the twentieth century and to the multiplicity of actors, places and media involved in the medical field. In assembling a variety of new scholarship, the book also makes a contribution to ‘decentring’ the European historiography of medicine by adding the perspective of a particular country – Belgium – to the literature.
In an era of transnational and global historiography, reflecting on the national frames of writing medical history remains a necessary endeavour. On the one hand, it helps historians to interrogate the metanarratives they use in writing about the medical past, many of which still focus on interactions between physicians and the state and stem from an older social historiography of medicine. By widening their gaze to a history of (health) care, historians may bring a broader range of actors and influences into the limelight. On the other hand, questioning national frames of writing history also shows the complex stratification of local practices, international circulation of scientific knowledge and national structures. Medical histories of modern Belgium therefore consist above all of a variety of entanglements taking place both in Belgium and beyond.
This contribution brings together the history of psychiatry and the history of disability in Belgium, for the period stretching from the end of the eighteenth century up till the end of the twentieth century. The chapter starts with enumerating several key reasons why such an approach is not only possible, but also valuable and innovative. On the basis of different case studies related to the history of disability and the history of psychiatry, the specificity of Belgian care and medicine is being discussed. Some of the themes being touched upon are the introduction of Belgian psychiatric legislation, the emergence of educational institutes for blind and/or deaf people, the impact of the First World War on representation of otherness and the well-known tradition of family care for psychiatric patients. On the basis of these and other case studies it is, first of all, argued that the Belgian state played an active role in the problematisation of mental and physical differences, but that it actually was private institutions, mainly religious congregations, who managed these populations on a daily basis. Second, the chapter pleads also to take into consideration the agency of the people who were controlled and disciplined; they were not only able to oppose and reinterpret the categories and norms that were imposed on them; they also used these labels to construct new (positive) identities – bringing them into competition with physicians, experts, bureaucrats, etc. By highlighting the variety of different players involved, this chapter illustrates the general theme of this section, ‘Beyond Physicians’.