Introduction. Madness and crime: Historical perspectives on forensic psychiatry

H. Oosterhuis*, A. Loughnan

*Corresponding author for this work

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The twentieth-century development of forensic psychiatry and criminology, occupying the border-area of the medical and psychological sciences on the one hand and the administration of justice and penal regimes on the other, has received little systematic attention by scholars. The bulk of historical studies on forensic psychiatry and criminology concerns the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Synthetic, comprehensive national studies of the twentieth-century development of forensic psychiatry as well as contextual and internationally comparative research, throwing light on the similarities, differences and contrasts between countries, are thin on the ground.
The collection of articles in this special issue of the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry represents one of the first attempts in the historical study of forensic psychiatry to set the national developments in a number of major Western countries side by side, enabling comparison across jurisdictions, and demonstrating the relevance of key themes that transcend national boundaries. Its overall aim is to understand the history of forensic psychiatry, as discourse as well as practice, in its institutional, wider socio-political and international settings. The collection, comprising twelve articles, offers broad overviews of developments in ten European and North-American countries – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and Canada. Thus, the collection provides a valuable resource for scholars of different stripes, and offers something of a corrective to the overrepresentation of certain national traditions in the historical study of forensic psychiatry.
In this Introduction we sketch the general historical background of forensic psychiatry and we discuss the main themes, points of interest and questions that have served as a guideline for the national overviews contained in this collection. Recurring topics include: forensic psychiatry’s relation to legal traditions and schools; the motives of psychiatrists to push their professional domain towards criminal law, the philosophies, scientific theories and treatments they used and the problems and dilemmas they encountered; the attitudes of lawyers vis-à-vis forensic psychiatry; the relation between legal and medical ideals, theories, discourses and practices, including in particular differing and changing meanings of criminal insanity and non-responsibility, and their implications; the place of forensic psychiatry in the broader field of medicine, psychiatry, mental health care, and social work, as well as the involvement of other professions in forensic work; forensic psychiatry’s target groups populating the border area between criminal law and psychiatry, and the way these groups were affected by forensic practices; the forensic institutional infrastructure, in particular the way in which psychiatry became established in the administration of justice; the periodization of, and the continuities or discontinuities in, the development of forensic psychiatry; the socio-political contexts in which forensic psychiatry evolved; and the way historians have interpreted its development, in particular professionalization theory and the Foucaultian view of the entanglement of law and psychiatry and its disciplinary role in modern society.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Law and Psychiatry
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014


  • Criminology
  • International comparison
  • LAW
  • Legal traditions
  • Medicalization
  • Professionalization
  • Social defense


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