Jane Freebody

  • Jane FreebodyJane Freebody began her research degree with the School of History, Philosophy and Culture at Oxford Brookes in September 2015. Her thesis title is '"What did they do all day?" Patient work, psychiatry and society in England, 1900-1940.'

    How did you hear about Oxford Brookes?

    I was already a student at Oxford Brookes, having completed my Undergraduate degree (in History and French Studies) and my Masters (in the History of Medicine) here.

    What attracted you to Oxford Brookes University to conduct your research?

    Whilst studying for my Masters, I became very interested in the history of psychiatry and mental illness. I wanted to continue working with my MA supervisor, Professor Waltraud Ernst who is a specialist in the history of psychiatry, at PhD level.  I was very fortunate to receive a studentship from the Wellcome Trust to conduct my PhD research.

    What were you doing before?

    Prior to joining Brookes as an Undergraduate I was working in Event Management, Marketing and Fundraising.

    How easy did you find it to settle into the research environment?

    I was still in “study mode” when I began my PhD, having only had one week between submitting my MA dissertation and enrolling for the PhD, so I found  it quite natural to carry on with my studies. That said, I found it very different becoming a PhD student – it all feels much more serious and you are treated differently somehow. It came as a pleasant surprise that there was so much support for research students in terms of regular supervision meetings and offers of activities such as teaching, training and conferences to be involved in. 

    Tell us about your research project.

    Although belief in the therapeutic properties of work and pastimes for mentally ill people has a long history - Galen proclaimed as early as c. ACE170 that work was “nature’s physician” - patient work is rarely the subject of systematic historical analysis. This can largely be accounted for by the enduring emphasis in the history of psychiatry on medical ideas and treatments, rather than interventions that do not appear to require medical expertise. Research that focuses on patients’ activities is limited to the work of Jennifer Laws (2011) and Vicky Long (2006) and a recently published edited volume by Waltraud Ernst (2016).  However, there remains a dearth of material on patient work in France and Britain during the early twentieth century.

    My research project contests the view that the early twentieth century was a "dead period" in the history of psychiatry. The turbulence of the period – World War I followed by economic depression and political instability - contributed to a dynamic environment in which attitudes towards work, non-work and care of the mentally ill were fundamentally challenged.  Aude Fauvel (2013) highlights the advent of shock treatments, rest cures and psychoanalysis, as well as the establishment of outpatient clinics, as evidence of therapeutic innovation.  However, patient work and related activities also formed a crucial aspect of this therapeutic mix, though this has yet to receive the attention it deserves. This project will rectify this significant historiographical omission.

    The project is relevant to contemporary debates regarding employment and mental health, notably those concerning the number of workdays lost due to mental ill-health (11.3m in England in 2013, according to the UK Labour Force Survey).  In England, in particular, reductions in disability allowances are forcing the mentally ill to be financially independent, despite unemployment standing at nearly 6% (Guardian, 18/2/2015).   Equipping those suffering from mental ill-health with workplace skills remains just as pressing today as in the 1920s and 1930s. 

    My thesis will address how attitudinal changes (which were far-reaching during the early twentieth century) were incorporated into asylum practice, thus highlighting the way in which society and psychiatry are intrinsically linked and how work and activity in mental institutions have evolved over time in response to wider social, institutional and medical contexts.  Crucially, the comparative approach will offer a valuable means of identifying different trajectories of development, as well as alerting the historian to the potential uniqueness or commonality of events. France and England have been chosen because of their shared history in regard to "moral therapy" and their long-standing exchange of ideas on medical theory and practice. The project investigates the continuities and ruptures that characterised the situation a century after the heyday of moral therapy, examining the impact of different social and political circumstances, legal frameworks and new theories about labour efficiency on the configuration of patient work and leisure activities as part of, or apart from, medical regimes.  

    What do you enjoy about being a research student?

    I really enjoy being a “detective” and I like tracking down articles, books that are out of print and obscure archive material!  If something is difficult to get hold of that makes me want to locate it even more!  And then I find it very satisfying to piece together the pieces of the jigsaw to try and make an argument that hangs together.  I suppose you could say that I enjoy the craftsmanship involved in research and writing.  I like feeling part of the academic community of Brookes and I am looking forward to doing some teaching.

    What do you think of the research training offered at Oxford Brookes?

    There are a lot of excellent training opportunities at Brookes – from Time Management (very helpful for me!) to computer skills, as well as sessions specifically geared to navigating one’s way through the various milestones associated with a PhD, such as Registration, Transfer and the Viva.  These are really useful and make those particular hurdles less daunting.  I am taking a lunchtime French course at the moment to help me maintain my French language skills, which will be vital when I go to Paris to conduct some of my research. 

    What are your future plans?

    It’s difficult to think beyond the next milestone, as there is always so much to do, but I would very much like to remain in academia in some form or another – it really depends what opportunities there are when the time comes.