For more than 34 years, Franklin & Marshall College’s Joel Eigen regularly traveled to London’s Central Criminal Court of England and Wales, where he painstakingly researched records and wrote about medical diagnoses and insanity trials from the 18th to the 20th century.
But the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology had an epiphany as he prepared his third and final volume on insanity in the English courts, published in 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press.
“I eventually recognized the question that had animated this research so many years ago. Where did these diagnoses come from in the first place?” Eigen wrote in the preface to “Mad-Doctors in the Docks: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913.”
The answer remains elusive, but Eigen’s acclaimed trilogy – “Mad-Doctors,” “Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court” and “Unconscious Crime: Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London” – charts a path for future researchers in forensics.
“I consider this to be an excellent piece of historical scholarship,” wrote reviewer Ian Burney, professor of history at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “’Mad-Doctors in the Docks’ is a fitting conclusion to Eigen’s assiduous search for the right question.” Writing in the journal “Medical History,” legal historian Ivan Crozier referred to the volume as “a scholarly triumph … it is a rare treat to read history this good.”
One recent afternoon in his F&M office, Eigen recalled the day in 1982 when his mentor, Sir Nigel Walker, a trailblazer in the history of forensic psychiatry and director of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, handed him the cases he used for his pioneering text.
“He said, ‘See what you can do with these, Joel,’’’ Eigen recalled. “His work launched my career. I wish he had lived to see the last volume.”
Walker, who died three years ago, had written extensively on criminal cases and the courts, including his seminal “Crime and Insanity in Britain.” But Eigen found something in Walker’s research that the author apparently overlooked.
“He asked me, ‘How did you know there were medical witnesses testifying in my cases because my text did not comment on this?’ I said to him, ‘It was in a footnote,’” Eigen recalled. “He said, ‘You read footnotes?’”
Early in his research, while going through records in London’s Guildhall Library, Eigen recognized the importance of the medical witnesses.
“This was their testimony, given in the courtroom, in public, justifying a diagnosis in a very fraught setting,” he said. “They’re arguing for legitimacy of their knowledge at the same time that knowledge is being used to convict or acquit.”
Often severe, the medical witness testimony was critical to reaching a verdict, Eigen said. Death was punishment for more than 200 crimes in this period.
“The fact that the most voluble and the most frequently cited witnesses in the cases of homicidal-mania were police surgeons gave them tremendous credibility because they were in the employ of the state,” Eigen said.
Moreover, until 1858, no standard of medical education existed in England, Eigen said. “The greatest difficulty was that surgeons were trained one way, physicians were trained another, and apothecaries were trained yet another. There was no standard educational background for anyone, which makes the diagnoses more idiosyncratic.”
Eigen, who writes in longhand and jokes he’s "premodern," retires at the end of this academic year. His peers believe his scholarship will endure.
“Every academic hopes for a spot on the bookshelf,” he said. “It has been a lifetime of work.”