Korean J Med Hist.  2019 Dec;28(3):787-820. 10.13081/kjmh.2019.28.787.

Towards Modern Depressive Disorder: Professional Understanding of Depression in Interwar Britain

  • 1Lecturer, Department of Western History, Seoul National University, Korea. hjeanhwang@naver.com


This article examines the way in which British psychiatrists defined, categorized, and applied depression in the period between the two World Wars. To analyze the professional understanding and application of the notion, various expert literatures will be analyzed, such as textbooks, medical journals, and medical documents kept in daily practice. Through the analysis, this article suggests that in the interwar decades, the status of depression as a distinct mental disorder was far from established in terms of its definition, terminology, and classification, although the disorder had already become the most prevalent mental illness by the turn of the century. Also, this article argues that the early twentieth century should be recognized as a part of the long evolution through which depression achieves its modernity, beginning in the early twentieth century and ending in the post-war era. Such findings about a specific psychiatric diagnosis can be applied to the explanation of contemporary psychiatry. At least before the Second World War, British psychiatry had not yet entered into its modern phase and was still under the strong influence of the Victorian medical tradition. Thus, this article claims that in order to understand British psychiatry and its characteristics against this historical background, continuity should be stressed rather than modernity.


depression; depressive disorder; melancholia; Emil Kraepelin; British psychiatry; interwar psychiatry; the Great British Debate

MeSH Terms

Depressive Disorder*
Mental Disorders
World War II
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