Drugs: Then and Now

Our project is concerned with the Psychiatric Bulletin, a collection of informational magazines that address various aspects of psychiatry, from jealousy in children to prejudice as a disease. In the bulletin, many of the articles address issues that we today would not consider diseases and outlines the cause, prevention, and treatment of the “disease”. Since the Psychiatric Bulletin covers such a wide range of topics, we decided to focus on one topic that appeared frequently throughout the nine volumes we had access to, the concept of drugs and drug abuse. We are going to analyze how drug use and abuse were portrayed in the 1960s, the purpose that drugs served in different fields of medicine, and the rationale that some psychiatrists had to explain drug addiction. The articles place an emphasis on the social and cultural aspects of drug addiction aside from the biological reasoning behind it, and our project will be examining these aspects as well.


Picture featured in an article we will be analyzing in the Psychiatric Bulletin. This is a visual depiction of drug-induced psychosis. 

We will be constructing an informational brochure accompanied with a short video illustrating how exactly the culture of drug abuse was like in the 1960s. We thought a brochure would be appropriate because it is similar to the form of the archive materials, and the video would enhance the teaching aspect of the project. Our project is meant to aid in professional research, and is targeted towards medical humanities researchers interested in how drug addiction was created and viewed in the past. Hopefully our project will provide them with new information about drug addiction in the past and a new perspective on modern forms of drug abuse treatment, to ultimately facilitate drug abuse treatment nowadays and to employ the use of drugs in an effective way when necessary for treatment of other diseases.


Breakdown of several different types of barbiturates. We will be analyzing an article about barbiturates in the 1960s. Image

We are planning on also covering the differences between drug culture in the past and in the present day. To do this, we will need to conduct some outside research beyond the archive materials provided by the Woodson and search for articles similar to the format of the articles in the Psychiatric Bulletin, but that were published relatively recently. We are anticipating to find noteworthy differences between the treatment of drug abuse in the past and the present and are hoping to relay these differences in our project to provide new insight about this topic to medical humanities researchers and interested students. By understanding the treatment of drug addiction in the past, researchers and professionals in the healthcare industry will be able to further enhance treatment of drug addiction in the present day. The 1960s were a time of hard-scale drug usage, and substance abuse is still a very prevalent problem in today’s society, and hopefully we will be able to connect the two time periods to analyze the culture of drug abuse through history.

Finding Order in Disorder

Before I set foot in the McGovern Historical Center, I envisioned a museum with fancy exhibits outlining the history and development of medicine at the Texas Medical Center. While my expectations were partially fulfilled with displays of different medical devices and surgical instruments, what I found most interesting in the archive were different articles written regarding various medical issues of the past, and issues we as young students in the age of modern medicine would regard as foolish and primitive. I found the fact that surgical instrument handles pre-germ theory were made of wood intriguing. Consequently, blood was able to seep into the handle, which created a dangerous working environment for health professionals.


Organ-specific surgical tool kit used by doctors in the 19th century. (photo taken at the McGovern Historical Center, Houston, TX)

I gravitated towards the two artworks entitled the “Re-evaluation of Lobotomy” and “Lost Cry,” simply because of the emotional intensities underlying the pieces. In both works, I felt an unsettling sensation that led me to inquire of what the artist is truly trying to delineate and express to me.

In the “Re-evaluation of Lobotomy,” I was able to recognize the birth of biochemistry as a means of treatment for psychological and neurological disorders. In this piece, demons, animals, and creatures seem to come out of the brain of a skull, which illustrates past notions of psychological diseases. There seems to a hole in the skull, which shows how psychosurgery is able to solve these illnesses by “releasing” the entities that control the mind. However, after the success of drugs in treating personality disorders, psychosurgery was re-evaluated, and even considered the last resort for patients suffering mental illnesses, since psychosurgery’s effects on personality were drastic.

Another piece related to neurological and mental disorders was “Lost Cry” from the Psychiatric Bulletin. The piece depicts a greenish, monstrous figure with an intense fear in his eyes. His eyes are open wide in a full scream, and the artist’s use of chiaroscuro and contrast in light created an uncomfortable atmosphere for me. Although the piece was obviously silent, I was easily able to hear the loud and cacophonous cry of the patient in anguish. I believe this to be a picture of his inner subconscious turmoil, and the artwork does a tremendous job in expressing the patient’s real feelings, which would be impossible to utter in speech.

All in all, my eye-opening visit to the archive forced me to reconsider my perceptions of the past, in regards to both its medical technologies and its depiction of patients with mental health disorders. I have come to realize how medicine, or any topic, can be viewed through artistic lenses that are often able to reveal another layer of emotions than through words of mouth.




A Flash to the Past

Although I had never been to an archive before, I had some general ideas of what it would be like before the trip. Basically, I just thought that it would be similar to a library. I wasn’t expecting it to have so many different types of unpublished primary sources—from VCR tapes that had been converted into a video easily shared by USB to books written in Latin from 1778, from framed artwork and maps to a surgical kit used in 1850. The antiquity of these sources really intrigued me and I was fascinated at how we were able to interact and touch the same materials that our predecessors created hundreds of years ago.

The trip consisted of a brief introduction to the archive in the reading room, also known as the face of the archive—what people first see when they enter, followed by a visit to the media room where tapes are converted from one file type to another since many video players are not being produced anymore. We finished the trip by visiting the “stacks”. They are literally stacks of books and other mediums organized by subject dating all the way back to the 18th century (or even older). The archivist had laid out some resources pertaining to the topics of our research projects, mainly focused on the artificial heart and Psychiatric Bulletin, the latter being my project! What I found the most interesting was the surgical kit from the 1850s (pictured below). The archivist explained how blood seeped


Surgical Kit from 1850-1880

into the cracks of the wooden handles of the instruments and was impossible to clean out completely, creating unsanitary tools to perform each surgery. We were even able to handle these instruments, which was amazing considering their age and the consequences of mishandling them.

When we were allowed to explore the archive on our own, I gravitated towards the Psychiatric Bulletins because they are the focus of my project. Below is a cover of one of the magazines published in 1952, depicting a man in agony, screaming. The title of the painting is Lost Cry, and probably refers to how mentally ill patients are suffering, but people refuse to acknowledge their pain, just how we as viewers cannot audibly hear his cry for help. The Psychiatric Bulletins covered a wide variety of mental illnesses but also

psychiatric bulletin pic
“Lost Cry” front cover artwork; Fall 1952

included other topics pertaining to psychology. One bulletin I noticed was fixated on the topic of alcohol, with almost all articles relating to alcohol abuse and indicated how alcoholism was an illness that could be healed with psychology. The text of the articles was all very engaging to read, enhanced with expressive pictures like this one, and I wished that I could take the bulletins back to read them closely because a lot has changed regarding mental health and stigmas surrounding it since the 1950s.

The archive was an incredible opportunity to have because we are rarely exposed to so many primary sources. These unpublished materials could provide new perspectives on widely held beliefs and allow researchers and us students to explore topics in more depth. Without an archive, these important photographs, magazines, manuscripts, maps, books, tapes—all would be inaccessible and lost forever.