On the Heels of Ignorance: Psychiatry and the Politics of Not Knowing

(University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2019)

Psychiatry has always aimed to peer deep into the human mind, daring to cast light on its darkest corners and untangle its thorniest knot, often invoking the latest medical science in doing so. But, as Owen Whooley’s sweeping new history tell us, the history of American psychiatry is really a history of ignorance. On the Heels of Ignorance begins with American psychiatry’s formal beginnings in the 1840s and moves through two centuries of constant struggle simply to define and redefine mental illness, to say nothing of the best way to treat it. Whooley’s book is no anti-psychiatric screed, however; instead, he reveals a field that has muddled along through periodic reinventions and conflicting agendas of curiosity, compassion, and professional striving. On the Heels of Ignorance draws from intellectual history and the sociology of professions to portray an ongoing human effort to make sense of complex mental phenomena using an imperfect set of tools, with recurrent tragic results.

Praise for On the Heels of Ignorance

On the Heels of Ignorance is a substantial achievement, addressing a core puzzle in the history of psychiatry. Whooley’s gambit is to narrate psychiatry from the point of view of its professional persistence in the face of recurrent failure. Whooley is an engaging writer and his book is an exciting one, with compelling analysis well positioned to make a real impact.” Aaron Panofsky, author of Misbehaving Science

“Essential reading for anyone interested in psychiatry’s past fortunes and future prospects. Whooley gives us an arresting interpretation of American psychiatry’s history, challenges, and resiliency, from its origins in the nineteenth-century asylum to its recent embrace of neuroscience. In boldly conceived episodes, Whooley deftly shows how psychiatrists repeatedly and optimistically reinvented their discipline when faced with professional crises.” Elizabeth Lunbeck, author of The Americanization of Narcissism

“Whooley convincingly shows that the study of ignorance can produce understanding. Seeing the history of psychiatry through its efforts to manage ignorance is at once new and entirely convincing. The controversies of twenty-first-century psychiatry look very much like those of the nineteenth century, once you are prepared to see the connections and appreciate much of the unknowability of mental suffering. Whooley’s path is one worth taking.” Jason Schnittker, University of Pennsylvania

“Over the past five decades, social scientists have examined the history and development of psychiatry largely as a series of triumphs or reforms or as a form of social control. In this provocative and well-researched book, Whooley provides a sharp challenge and turns these perspectives on their head by reinterpreting the development of psychiatry as fundamentally ‘the collective management of ignorance.’” Peter Conrad, Brandeis University


Knowledge in the Time of Cholera: The Struggle Over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century

(University of Chicago Press, 2013)

2015 Winner of the Robert K. Merton Book Award from the Science and Technology Section (SKAT) of the American Sociological Association

Vomiting. Diarrhea. Dehydration. Death. Confusion. In 1832, the arrival of cholera in the United States created widespread panic throughout the country. For the rest of the century, epidemics swept through American cities and towns like wildfire, killing thousands. Physicians of all stripes offered conflicting answers to the cholera puzzle, ineffectively responding with opiates, bleeding, quarantines, and all manner of remedies, before the identity of the dreaded infection was consolidated under the germ theory of disease some sixty years later.

These cholera outbreaks raised fundamental questions about medical knowledge and its legitimacy, giving fuel to alternative medical sects that used the confusion of the epidemic to challenge both medical orthodoxy and the authority of the still-new American Medical Association. In Knowledge in the Time of Cholera, Owen Whooley tells us the story of those dark days, centering his narrative on rivalries between medical and homeopathic practitioners and bringing to life the battle to control public understanding of disease, professional power, and democratic governance in nineteenth-century America.

Praise for Knowledge in the Time of Cholera

“Knowledge in the Time of Cholera is a provocative book, sweeping in scope and valuable for bringing the interpretive insights of the sociology of knowledge to bear on nineteenth-century medicine.” - Science Magazine

"This is a fascinating book. It brims with theoretical insight that will inspire intellectual historians and historians of the professions to rethink old questions. - American Historical Review

“Owen Whooley has gone after big game! Knowledge in the Time of Cholera is bold and assertive, forcing a reconsideration of the historical and sociological relationships between medicine and science, and providing an impressive analysis of the deeply intertwined development of these two professions.” - Thomas Gieryn, author of Cultural Boundaries of Science 

“This is a valuable and interesting book that will be of interest to scholars from many fields. It makes a contribution to cholera studies but, more importantly, it adds new dimensions to the sociological literature on medical professionalisation. Furthermore, Whooley’s conceptualisation of the epistemic contest, elaborated in his concluding chapter, should prove useful in analysing many intellectual debates. I expect we will see it utilised repeatedly by future scholars.” - Sociology of Health & Illness

"Whooley provides a sustained attack on traditional narratives of the straight-line upward trajectory of scientific discovery and professionalization of physicians. . . . [This] book is for those who relish academic combat and can delve into notions of epistemology wielded as weapons of control.” - Health Affairs

“There are books on the history of cholera, on the laboratory and scientific networks, and on epistemology and science, but none like this one. Owen Whooley has produced a truly original book, an important intervention in science studies, history of medicine, and nineteenth-century American society and culture.” - Alexandra Minna Stern, author of Eugenic Nation