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Raj Persaud in conversation - the podcasts

Sep 17, 2018

The untold story of how hereditary data in mental hospitals gave rise to the science of human heredity

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In the early 1800s, a century before there was any concept of the gene, physicians in insane asylums began to record causes of madness in their admission books. Almost from the beginning, they pointed to heredity as the most important of these causes. As doctors and state officials steadily lost faith in the capacity of asylum care to stem the terrible increase of insanity, they began emphasizing the need to curb the reproduction of the insane. They became obsessed with identifying weak or tainted families and anticipating the outcomes of their marriages. Genetics in the Madhouse is the untold story of how the collection and sorting of hereditary data in mental hospitals, schools for "feebleminded" children, and prisons gave rise to a new science of human heredity.

In this compelling book, Theodore Porter draws on untapped archival evidence from across Europe and North America to bring to light the hidden history behind modern genetics. He looks at the institutional use of pedigree charts, censuses of mental illness, medical-social surveys, and other data techniques--innovative quantitative practices that were worked out in the madhouse long before the manipulation of DNA became possible in the lab. Porter argues that asylum doctors developed many of the ideologies and methods of what would come to be known as eugenics, and deepens our appreciation of the moral issues at stake in data work conducted on the border of subjectivity and science.

A bold rethinking of asylum work, Genetics in the Madhouse shows how heredity was a human science as well as a medical and biological one.

Theodore M. Porter is Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Peter Reill Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical AgeTrust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900 (all Princeton). He lives in Altadena, California.


"I suspect this bold, dauntingly well-documented book will prove difficult to dismiss."--David Dobbs, Nature
"By following the technologies of paperwork and data collection, Porter has unearthed a radically new history of human genetics, one that evokes not the double helix but the humble filing cabinet."--Emily M. Kern, Science
"Fascinating but scary. Genetics in the Madhouse . . . uses date collection in psychiatric hospitals to show the stages when research straddles subjectivity and science."--Liz Else and Simon Ings, New Scientist
"Porter takes a fascinating look at early attempts to tame unruly minds with big data and statistics."--Bruce Bower, Science News
"[An] absorbing account of the role played by mental illness studies in gaining an early understanding of human heredity."--Robin McKie, The Observer
"Genetics in the Madhouse provides a fascinating examination of investigations of human heredity, conducted long before DNA could be studied in laboratories."--Glenn Altschuler, Philadelphia Inquirer


"We’ve all been taught how genetics got its start in Mendel’s pea patch. But the real story is more complicated, and a lot more interesting. In Genetics in the Madhouse, Theodore Porter chronicles some of the early history of heredity—not in gardens, but in asylums. The book is a fascinating exploration of the long-running conviction that madness, criminality, and other mental traits can be passed down from parent to child."—Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
"Porter’s masterful book casts the fresh light of sanity over a previously uncharted sea of data on madness. He brings analytical order to an intriguingly chaotic subject, illuminating the challenges of ‘big data’ from a past era when the plasticity of categorization resulted in data being deduced from conclusions, a problem with uncanny similarities to those we face today."—Stephen M. Stigler, author of The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom
"Porter brilliantly reveals the debt that the science of human heredity owes to the data gathering, numerical tables, and statistical interpretations that emerged from attempts to account for mental and physical disease among patients in asylums, hospitals, and prisons. Richly informed by archival sources, his book is masterfully argued, lucidly written, and boldly original. A landmark in the history of medicine, science, and mental illness."—Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity
"Porter serves as a captivating and intriguing guide into the largely uncredited history of statistical and genetic data derived from the pre-Mendelian asylums, prisons, and schools. Genetics in the Madhouse succeeds in illuminating our present concepts of heredity and eugenics by leaning into the complexities of human science."—Aaron T. Beck, University of Pennsylvania
"Genetics in the Madhouse is a fascinating examination of the role played by big data in the history of genetics and its subsequent exploitation in the disgraced science of eugenics. Porter weaves together complex elements of historical influences, personalities, and seismic events almost like a novel, but the difference is that his story cannot have a neat and tidy resolution. Beautifully written and admirably researched, this is an enthralling book."—Catharine Arnold, author of Bedlam: London and Its Mad
"Important and original. Drawing on a wealth of archival research in many languages across many different national settings, Porter reexamines the role of psychiatry in the study of human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is an enormously impressive book."—Andrew Scull, author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine
"A very significant contribution to the history of the human sciences, statistics, and eugenics. Porter rewards readers not only with astonishing insights into nineteenth-century data collection on the mentally ill and feebleminded, but also with the pleasure of reading a good, intriguing story."—Staffan Müller-Wille, coauthor of A Cultural History of Heredity

Theodore Porter

Distinguished Professor of History & Vice Chair for Academic Personnel

I teach various topics pertaining more or less directly to history of science.

My first book, The Rise of Statistical Thinking (1986), was about the development of statistical ideas and methods in fields ranging from the social science of statistics to biological evolution and thermodynamics. This interest in the relations of the natural and the social is also central to my Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (1995). There I emphasize that effective quantification is never a matter simply of discovery, but always also of administration, hence of social and technological power. Quantitative objectivity is in a way a form of standardization, the use of rules to confine and tame the personal and subjective. Science did not always idealize this mechanical form of objectivity, but has come to do so (at least in its rhetoric) as an adaptation to modern political and administrative cultures—which it at the same time has helped to shape. In both of these books I invert the usual account of the relations between natural and social science, by showing how some of the crucial assumptions and methods of science arose within contexts of application. The history of quantification is the history of a social technology, reflecting a sensibility that is as closely linked to fields like accounting and cost-benefit analysis and to social science as to physics. The ethic of systematic calculation as a basis for social decisions—and often, as in inferential statistics, also for scientific demonstration—responds to a political culture marked by distrust of elites and even, in a way, of experts. 

In 2003, Dorothy Ross and I completed a book on the history of the social sciences, volume VII of The Cambridge History of Science volume on The Modern Social Sciences (2003). This is our pioneering effort to provide a synthetic history of social science since the eighteenth century, in relation to each other and to the sciences of nature. The volume tells a story not of detached knowledge, but of tools, theories, and images that have helped to create the modern world. 

My most recent book is Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age (2004). This is a biographical study of a scientist who was ever in revolt against the confines of this or any professional identity and who lived his life, with conscious reference to Goethe, as a bildungsroman. At the age of 23, after his German Wanderjahre, he published a fictionalized autobiography under the title The New Werther, and followed it with a passion play for the nineteenth-century. For a decade after that he threw himself into writings on socialism, on the cultural history of the German Reformation (he loathed Martin Luther), and on sexuality, friendship, and the status of women. I’ve been fascinated by the continuities between his works and experiences in these years and the statistical labors that absorbed him after about 1892. I am interested, too, in his deep relationship to nature as an object of passionate attraction, which yet, when approached in the true spirit of science, must always be remote. Pearson’s life displays a deep and revealing ambivalence between scientific method as a way of controlling the merely personal and science as an expression of individuality that is inseparable from wisdom and maturity. Finally, I think I have learned some new things about the relation of statistics to all of this, as well as to ether theories in physics and graphical methods in engineering instruction. 

I have advised or am advising graduate students working on a variety of historical topics: science and rational leisure; social science and colonial administration; nature and imperialism in the North Atlantic; Chinese mathematics; the British census; scientific exchanges in the Eastern Mediterranean; psychical research; museums and ethnology in imperial Germany.. 

My current book project, which I intend to finish during my stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin in 2013-14, is about this history of human heredity, and more particularly how insane asylums and related institutions became important sites for recordkeeping on conditions regarded as hereditary, and for research on their presumed inheritance. These institutions developed the ideologies and some of the research methods of eugenics decades before Francis Galton announced this biological human science. From the beginning it was a science of data and statistics. The history of data practices and analysis is as central to the history of genetics and genomics as is the more familiar story of Mendelian breeding, fruit flies, and the decoding of DNA. This project highlights the key role of social and medical institutions, and of the expansion of state activities, in the rise of genetics, and conversely of hereditary ideas and practices in the shaping of welfare states. 

On the back burner just now, but likely to develop before too long into a book, is a project on the contradictions of quantification at the intersection of science and government. An ethic of the simple fact, typically in numerical form, grew up over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, less as an export of science than as a political and bureaucratic role for which certain tools of science have been shaped. The ideal has been to reconcile central control with local autonomy, but the required faith in what I call “thin description” is often undermined by creative deception. Ambitions for “evidence-based” practices under the neo-liberal governance have formed an unprecedented vulnerability to Funny Numbers (my working title).