J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi at Boston Public Library Tonight

I’m going outside the eighteenth century to mention that Dr. Nassir Ghaemi will speak at the Boston Public Library this evening at 6:00 P.M. about his new book, A First-Rate Madness.

Two years back, when I was at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Seattle, I attended a session where Dr. Ghaemi spoke. His topic was the intersection of modern psychiatry and history—specifically, the case of Gen. William T. Sherman of the Union Army, and his history of depression.

As I noted a year later, Dr. Ghaemi had a broader argument: that bipolar/manic-depressive disorder and schizophrenia are found at a fairly steady rate across all societies, so they most likely have a biological rather than cultural basis, and we should assume those conditions appeared with the same frequency in the nineteenth century—or the eighteenth.

In addition to Sherman, A First-Rate Madness looks at Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, King, Kennedy, and others from the last hundred and fifty years. It posits that at times those men’s psychological challenges made them better leaders by enhancing their “realism, empathy, resilience, and creativity.” Here’s the Boston Globe’s review (and an interview with Dr. Ghaemi about his own reading).

Are there similar examples from the eighteenth century? Unfortunately, most of our sources on people of that period describe their moods only when they’re debilitated one way or another, like Lt. Neil Wanchope or Samuel Dana. We know less about mood changes they got through without so much difficulty.

Thus, it’s easy to say that former Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall was severely depressed when he didn’t come out of his bedroom for several months straight after the war. But was depression also why he went unusually silent during the Boston Massacre trials of 1770, and the Massachusettensis-Novanglus debate of 1774-75?

Did manic energy, empathy, and a clearer sense of risks help Robert Clive build the British Empire in India? Did depression contribute to his suicide in 1774? And did earlier personal problems—or the loss of his leadership—produce the British East India Company’s fiscal disaster in the early 1770s, which in turn led to a new tea tax and then the Boston Tea Party?

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