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Mind Fixers

Psychiatry's Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness


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Mind Fixers tells the history of psychiatry’s quest to understand the biological basis of mental illness and asks where we need to go from here.

In Mind Fixers, Anne Harrington, author of The Cure Within, explores psychiatry’s repeatedly frustrated struggle to understand mental disorder in biomedical terms. She shows how the stalling of early twentieth century efforts in this direction allowed Freudians and social scientists to insist, with some justification, that they had better ways of analysing and fixing minds.

But when the Freudians overreached, they drove psychiatry into a state of crisis that a new “biological revolution” was meant to alleviate. Harrington shows how little that biological revolution had to do with breakthroughs in science and why the field has fallen into a state of crisis in our own time.

Mind Fixers makes clear that psychiatry’s waxing and waning biological enthusiasms have been shaped, not just by developments in the clinic and lab, but also by a surprising range of social factors including immigration, warfare, grassroots activism and assumptions about race and gender. Government programmes designed to empty the state mental hospitals, acrid rivalries between different factions in the field, industry profit mongering, consumerism and an uncritical media have all contributed to the story as well.

In focusing particularly on the search for the biological roots of schizophrenia, depression and bipolar disorder, Harrington underscores the high human stakes for the millions of people who have sought medical answers for their mental suffering. This is not just a story about doctors and scientists but about countless ordinary people and their loved ones.

A clear-eyed, evenhanded and yet passionate tour de force, Mind Fixers recounts the past and present struggle to make mental illness a biological problem in order to lay the groundwork for creating a better future, both for those who suffer and for those whose job it is to care for them.


“Rosenhan’s study exemplifies much of what went wrong in twentieth-century psychiatry, as biologists, psychoanalysts and sociologists struggled for supremacy. Science historian Anne Harrington takes us through the painful history of that struggle in the enthralling Mind Fixers, which focuses particularly on the United States.” — Nature

“Superb… nuanced… In Mind Fixers, Anne Harrington has written an excellent, engaging guide to what biological psychiatry has accomplished—and not accomplished—so far.” — Richard J. McNally, The Wall Street Journal

“The story Harrington tells is one of push-and-pull, back-and-forth… Intricate and winding, though her prose remains clear and crisp.” — Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

“A tale of promising roads that turned out to be dead ends, of treatments that seemed miraculous in their day but barbaric in retrospect, of public-health policies that were born in hope but destined for disaster… Of value to historians of medicine.” — Gary Greenberg, The Atlantic

“Masterful… Harrington’s grasp of this story and the clarity with which, with limited moralism, she delivers a tale about the ‘big picture’ of psychiatry and neurology is emblematic of the historian’s craft.” — Stephen T. Casper, Science

“A laudable venture, in which Harrington’s intellectual precision and exacting research cannot be faulted.” — Helen Thompson, The New York Times Book Review

” — Philip Alcabes, Los Angeles Review of Books

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