"An Insanity Expert at Work." From Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House (New York: Ian L. Munro, 1887)

Project (2017-2018)

Between Law and Science: Unsoundness of Mind in Anglo-American Medical Jurisprudence

Who is unsound of mind? Who should be deemed sufficiently responsible to make a will, enter into a contract, or get married? Who should not? Questions such as these have been important not only in Anglo-American law, but in branches of medicine as well. In some ways they have been, and are, fundamental in helping to shape the bounds of citizenship and liberty, the ways in which individuals could and can engage in basic civil activities. During my time at the MPIWG, I will explore how the Anglo-American legal and medical communities constituted and contested the concept of non compos mentis (unsoundness of mind) as it developed and was deployed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

My work to date has demonstrated that before the late eighteenth century, the presumption in both law and medicine was that the kinds of mental impairments that really mattered were few in number and generally severe in scope. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, an important transformation took place, visible in Anglo-American civil adjudications concerning mental competency. Physicians and jurists began to challenge, often quite successfully, strict common law standards minimizing occasions where an actor’s ability to make a will, enter into a contract, get married, be subject to a commission of lunacy, or the like could be placed in question. In this project, I seek to probe this transformation in the law and to examine the place of mental science, among other factors, in contributing to it.