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Sarah Marks to speak on ‘Neurasthenia, the ICD, and Psychiatry in the Socialist World’ at MPIGW

Posted by C3W Admin on September 13 2021

Sarah Marks will be giving a paper on ‘Neurasthenia, the International Classification of Diseases and the Socialist World’ on the 23rd September 2021 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. This seminar is organised by Lara Keuck and Steeves Demazeux as part of the Bordeaux-Berlin working group on Translating Validity in Psychiatric Research


‘In the early 1990s a clinical psychologist from London’s Maudsley Hospital began working in the Ukraine with clinicians treating children who had survived the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Drawing on his experience of treating children who had survived conflict and catastrophe in other parts of the world, he conceptualised their symptoms and therapy in terms of the DSM’s category of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. To his surprise, the Soviet-trained psychiatrists working in Kiev insisted instead on ‘neurasthenia’, resulting in some difficulties in conceptual and linguistic translation across the two clinical cultures. Neurasthenia was a ‘civilizational disorder’ coined by American neurologist George Beer in the 1870s. The diagnostic category fell out of use in British psychiatry in the early years of the 20th century. Indeed, most historians of medicine see neurasthenia as having disappeared from mainstream clinical practise in the west by the 1930s at the latest, due to the vagueness of its boundaries and the rise of depression and anxiety, and later PTSD, as alternative and more specific diagnoses. This narrative omits the fact that neurasthenia remained resilient in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as China and also France, long after the end of  WWII. Indeed, it was even given official credence as a rehabilitated  diagnostic category in the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases in 1967. This paper will reconstruct the meanings of neurasthenia in these later 20th century contexts, why clinicians lobbied for its recognition, and will argue that these events were linked to the intellectual development of psychiatry in the socialist world during the Cold War.’

Contact and Registration

The seminar series is open to all. Please email Klara Schwalbe to register for this seminar, specifying if you would like to attend in person or via Zoom at

About This Series:

This research seminar is hosted by the Bordeaux-Berlin Working Group on Translating Validity in Psychiatric Research and brings together historians, philosophers, psychiatrists and biomedical researchers.

This seminar will take place in a hybrid format in the MPIWG MAIN Conference Room and online via Zoom. The number of physical attendants for this seminar is limited to 10 and these places are primarily for internal members at the Institute, so please register early and we apologise to those we cannot accommodate. External guests must have proof of either vaccination, recovery from Covid or a negative test result to attend in person.


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