Helena Ek, doktorand i idéhistoria

Helena Ek


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Works at Department of Culture and Aesthetics
Telephone 08-16 46 85
Postal address Institutionen för kultur och estetik 106 91 Stockholm

About me

PhD candidate in the History of Ideas since February 2012. BA (Hons)English and History, Northumbria University, 2006. MA Scandinavian History, Linköping University, 2007. MA (Hons) History of Medicine, Newcastle University, 2009.


My PhD thesis is entitled: Erotic Insanity: Sex and psychiatry at Vadstena asylum, Sweden, 1849 - 1878.

The study takes as its subject a period when psychiatry was being established as a medical specialty in Sweden, when the boundaries of its practice and the role of the asylum were being negotiated, and a theme which highlights that process of self-definition – the erotic. The investigation explores how erotic behaviour was conceptualised as a medical problem in case notes and admission documents from Vadstena asylum, Sweden, focusing on the superintendency of physician Ludvig Magnus Hjertstedt (1849-1878).

The study focuses on the erotic as an area where the double nature of early psychiatry becomes visible, as physicians’ descriptions and interpretations of symptoms contain both medical and moral appraisals and assessments. What did it mean to be erotic in the eyes of the physicians? How did gender, class and social circumstances influence interpretation of symptoms, and how did that interpretation inform medical intervention?

The book shows how, as the on-site record of medical practice, the case note contains the interpretation of the patient-physician encounter according to the latter’s learning, while bearing witness to the medical ideas and explicatory models of its time. Furthermore, the case note was a site for production of psychiatric knowledge. Through an analysis of case notes, I trace the process of interpretation of erotic symptoms; their classification, treatment, and status, to show that the perceived connection between madness and sexuality in asylum practice was more complex than previous scholarship has suggested. While erotic and sexual behaviour could be interpreted as mental illness, it might also be viewed as indicative of a lewd personality, the result of inadequate moral instruction, an unrequited love, or an immoral lifestyle. The analysis further reveals how the belief in the ideal asylum guided medical practice. 

What emerges is what amounts to a medical culture at Vadstena, where concepts, ideas and techniques from theoretical psychiatry and foreign asylums were at times adopted, but more often revised or outright dismissed in favour of older, tried-and-tested models. The case records indicate a medical interest in sexuality, and that erotic behaviour was considered harmful enough to warrant treatment. Nymphomania, love madness and masturbatory insanity existed, while not as specific diagnostic entities or fixed categories, but as powerful images in the medical imagination. However, a level of tolerance for erotic tendencies can be discerned; an immoral past did not indicate madness, the presence of desire was not damning in itself for either male or female patients, and erotic behaviour was more often a symptom of illness than a cause, or an illness itself. 

Principal Supervisor: Professor Elisabeth Mansén, Department of Literature and History of Ideas, Stockholm University.

Supervisor: Dr Karin Dirke, Department of Literature and History of Ideas, Stockholm University.

Research interests: History of psychiatry c. 1750-1900, asylums, history of madness/insanity/mental illness, medicine and literature/narrative, nymphomania, masturbatory insanity, erotomania.

Last updated: March 2, 2019

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