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Medical Science and Legal Personhood: Remaking “Unsoundness” in English Civil Law, 1745-1830

Lecture by John Carson (University of Michigan)
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
4:00-5:00 PM
During the early nineteenth century British judges and juries remade the legal condition “unsound of mind.” Understood as the inability to manage one’s affairs, unsoundness of mind created the potential to tangle the legal, the social/economic, and the medical, and foregrounded the place of claims about the mind as a means of rationalizing decisions as to the extent of one’s legal personhood. Using the famous wills case Dew v. Clark and Clark as a jumping off point, this talk will explore some of the ways in which an individual’s legal personhood became, in part, a matter of medical judgment and the law itself became to a certain extent medicalized.

John Carson is associate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He was born in Philadelphia and received his PhD in history (of science) from Princeton University in 1994. He specializes in history of the human sciences and US intellectual/cultural history. His publications include The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics, 1750-1940 (Princeton University Press, 2007) and “‘Every Expression Is Watched’: Mind, Expertise, and Display in the Nineteenth-Century English Courtroom,” Social Studies of Science 48 (2018). John’s current research project explores the development and deployment of the medico-legal category “unsoundness of mind” in Anglo-America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Note: This event was rescheduled from September 10 to October 20.

Free and open to the public. This is a remote event and will take place online via Zoom. Please register in advance here:

This event is part of the Thursday Series of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies. It is made possible by a generous contribution from Kenneth and Frances Aftel Eisenberg.
Building: Off Campus Location
Location: Virtual
Event Link:
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: European, Faculty, Free, History, Law, Psychology
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies, Department of History

The Thursday Series is the core of the institute's scholarly program, hosting distinguished guests who examine methodological, analytical, and theoretical issues in the field of history. 

The Friday Series consists mostly of panel-style workshops highlighting U-M graduate students. On occasion, events may include lectures, seminars, or other programs presented by visiting scholars.

The insitute also hosts other historical programming, including lectures, film screenings, author appearances, and similar events aimed at a broader public audience.