Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity


Product Details

Princeton University Press
Publish Date
6.5 X 1.6 X 9.4 inches | 2.0 pounds

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About the Author

Theodore M. Porter is Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Peter Reill Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (all Princeton). He lives in Altadena, California.


"I suspect this bold, dauntingly well-documented book will prove difficult to dismiss."---David Dobbs, Nature
"By following the technologies of paperwork and data collection, Porter has unearthed a radically new history of human genetics, one that evokes not the double helix but the humble filing cabinet."---Emily M. Kern, Science
"Fascinating but scary. Genetics in the Madhouse . . . uses date collection in psychiatric hospitals to show the stages when research straddles subjectivity and science."---Liz Else and Simon Ings, New Scientist
"Porter takes a fascinating look at early attempts to tame unruly minds with big data and statistics."---Bruce Bower, Science News
"[An] absorbing account of the role played by mental illness studies in gaining an early understanding of human heredity."---Robin McKie, The Observer
"Genetics in the Madhouse provides a fascinating examination of investigations of human heredity, conducted long before DNA could be studied in laboratories."---Glenn Altschuler, Philadelphia Inquirer
"We've all been taught how genetics got its start in Mendel's pea patch. But the real story is more complicated, and a lot more interesting. In Genetics in the Madhouse, Theodore Porter chronicles some of the early history of heredity--not in gardens, but in asylums. The book is a fascinating exploration of the long-running conviction that madness, criminality, and other mental traits can be passed down from parent to child."--Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
"Porter's masterful book casts the fresh light of sanity over a previously uncharted sea of data on madness. He brings analytical order to an intriguingly chaotic subject, illuminating the challenges of 'big data' from a past era when the plasticity of categorization resulted in data being deduced from conclusions, a problem with uncanny similarities to those we face today."--Stephen M. Stigler, author of The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom
"Porter brilliantly reveals the debt that the science of human heredity owes to the data gathering, numerical tables, and statistical interpretations that emerged from attempts to account for mental and physical disease among patients in asylums, hospitals, and prisons. Richly informed by archival sources, his book is masterfully argued, lucidly written, and boldly original. A landmark in the history of medicine, science, and mental illness."--Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity
"Porter serves as a captivating and intriguing guide into the largely uncredited history of statistical and genetic data derived from the pre-Mendelian asylums, prisons, and schools. Genetics in the Madhouse succeeds in illuminating our present concepts of heredity and eugenics by leaning into the complexities of human science."--Aaron T. Beck, University of Pennsylvania
"Genetics in the Madhouse is a fascinating examination of the role played by big data in the history of genetics and its subsequent exploitation in the disgraced science of eugenics. Porter weaves together complex elements of historical influences, personalities, and seismic events almost like a novel, but the difference is that his story cannot have a neat and tidy resolution. Beautifully written and admirably researched, this is an enthralling book."--Catharine Arnold, author of Bedlam: London and Its Mad
"Important and original. Drawing on a wealth of archival research in many languages across many different national settings, Porter reexamines the role of psychiatry in the study of human heredity. Genetics in the Madhouse is an enormously impressive book."--Andrew Scull, author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity, from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine
"A very significant contribution to the history of the human sciences, statistics, and eugenics. Porter rewards readers not only with astonishing insights into nineteenth-century data collection on the mentally ill and feebleminded, but also with the pleasure of reading a good, intriguing story."--Staffan Müller-Wille, coauthor of A Cultural History of Heredity
"Winner of the Cheiron Book Prize, Cheiron: The International Society for the History of Behavioral & Social Sciences"
"One of Science News' Favorite Science Books of 2018"
"Genetics in the Madhouse has the power to inspire, to captivate and to stimulate further research."---Nicholas P. Hatton, Medical History
"Deeply researched and deftly argued."---Gregory Radick, Times Literary Supplement
"Porter commands an impressive array of languages, and where his own knowledge falters, he has employed assistance to allow him to survey other sources that would otherwise have remained out of reach."---Andrew Scull, Brain Journal of Neurology
"Porter has read voluminously in the secondary literature historians of psychiatry have produced. But more importantly, having done so, he has engaged in a positively prodigious amount of work in the archives. One can only admire the persistence and the diligence with which he has combed through an extraordinary array of materials . . . Genetics in the Madhouse is gracefully written, and Porter only occasionally gets bogged down in the minutiae of the archival materials he has spent so much time exploring."---Andrew Scull, Brain