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Desperate Remedies

Psychiatry’s Turbulent Quest to Cure Mental Illness

Andrew Scull

ISBN 9780674265103

Publication date: 05/17/2022

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A Washington Post Notable Work of Nonfiction
A Telegraph Book of the Year

A sweeping history of American psychiatry—from the mental hospital to the brain lab—that reveals the devastating treatments doctors have inflicted on their patients (especially women) in the name of science and questions our massive reliance on meds.

For more than two hundred years, disturbances of the mind—the sorts of things that were once called “madness”—have been studied and treated by the medical profession. Mental illness, some insist, is a disease like any other, whose origins can be identified and from which one can be cured. But is this true?

In this masterful account of America’s quest to understand and treat everything from anxiety to psychosis, one of the most provocative thinkers writing about psychiatry today sheds light on its tumultuous past. Desperate Remedies brings together a galaxy of mind doctors working in and out of institutional settings: psychologists and psychoanalysts, neuroscientists, and cognitive behavioral therapists, social reformers and advocates of mental hygiene, as well as patients and their families desperate for relief.

Andrew Scull begins with the birth of the asylum in the reformist zeal of the 1830s and carries us through to the latest drug trials and genetic studies. He carefully reconstructs the rise and fall of state-run mental hospitals to explain why so many of the mentally ill are now on the street and why so many of those whose bodies were experimented on were women. In his compelling closing chapters, he reveals how drug companies expanded their reach to treat a growing catalog of ills, leading to an epidemic of over-prescribing while deliberately concealing debilitating side effects.

Carefully researched and compulsively readable, Desperate Remedies is a definitive account of America’s long battle with mental illness that challenges us to rethink our deepest assumptions about who we are and how we think and feel.


  • An indisputable masterpiece…a comprehensive, fascinating, and persuasive narrative of the past 200 years of psychiatry in America…[Scull] is unsparing in his critiques when motives of money, power, and fame have tempted psychiatrists to disregard the welfare of those under their care.

    —Richard J. McNally, Wall Street Journal


  • Andrew Scull is the author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine; Hysteria: The Disturbing History; Madness: A Very Short Introduction, and Psychiatry and Its Discontents, among other books. Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, he won the Roy Porter Medal for lifetime contribution to the history of medicine and the Eric Carlson award for lifetime contributions to the history of psychiatry. He has contributed to many documentaries, including PBS’s “Mysteries of Mental Illness” and “The Lobotomist,” has written for the The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Times Literary Supplement, Scientific American, and The Nation, and blogs for Psychology Today and Mad in America.

Book Details

  • 512 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press