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Week 19: Defining the ‘family’

Lecturer: Mathew Thomson

The period that followed the traumas of the Second World War is often seen as one of unusual social stability. At the heart of this stability was an idealised model of ‘family’. This lecture considers the role of medicine in helping to make a particular model of family normal and healthy in the post-war decades. It shows that eugenics could have an after-life in this process. It highlights the important role of psychological medicine in shaping expectations about normal family life. And it examines the degree to which the social changes of the post-war era began to challenge such normative modes of thinking on the relationship between health and the family.

Discussion/Essay Questions:

  • What happened to eugenics after the Second World War?
  • Did concerns over mental health cement the position of the 'normal' family in the aftermath of the Second World War?

Required Reading:

Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in America (University of California Press, 2005), Chapter 5 ‘Centering Eugenics on the Family’, 150-81 (available as e-book via Warwick Library)

Further Reading:

David Armstrong, The Political Anatomy of the Body (Cambridge, 1983)

Alison Bashford, ‘Where did Eugenics Go?’, in Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine (eds.), Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (Oxford University Press, 2012), 539-58

Terri Chettiar, ‘Democratizing Mental Health: Motherhood, Therapeutic Community and the Emergence of the Psychiatric Family in Post Second World War Britain’, History of the Human Sciences, 25 (2012), 107-22 e-journal

Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self (London, 1989)

Michal Shapira, ‘The Psychological Study of Anxiety in the Era of the Second World War’, 20th Century British History, 24 (2013) 31-57 e-journal

Pat Starkey, Families and Social Workers: The Work of Family Service Units, 1940-1985 (Liverpool, 2000)

Pat Thane, ‘Family Life and “Normality” in Post-War British Culture’, In R. Bessel and D. Schumann (eds.), Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of the 1940s and 1950s (2003), 193-210.

Mathew Thomson, Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2006), Chapters 6 and 7

Chris Waters, ‘The Homosexual as Social Being in Britain, 1945-1968’, Journal of British Studies, 51 (2012), 685-712 e-journal

John Welshman, ‘In Search of the ‘Problem Family’: Public Health and Social Work in England and Wales, 1940-1970’, Social History of Medicine, 9 (1996), 447-65 e-journal

Digital Resources: [note that to access resources less than 100 years old, you will need a Wellcome Library Card, available to all via the Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2NB (for full privileges) or register online here (for access to digitized materials less than 100 years old): ] Note that this resource also hosts 650 digitized books addressing issues in the history of modern genetics, including eugenics. So if you can’t find it in our Library, try here!