Book Review: From Melancholia to Prozac

The following book review was originally published as “Booknote: From Melancholia to Prozac” in the blog The Itinerant Librarian. It is reposted here with permission from the author. Hutchins Library has recently acquired this book. As for this writing, the book is featured in the library’s book display on “Explore the Body of Science,” so you can check it out from the display on the second floor. After the display, you can find it in the General Collection (Third Floor) under the call number  362.25 L418f 2012 (Click on call number to view record in BANC, the library’s catalog).

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Clark Lawlor, From Melancholia to Prozac: A History of Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780199585793.

Genre: History
Subgenre: Medical history, microhistory.

MelancholyProzacCoverSmallIf I have to rate it on stars, I would give it a 2.5 out of 5 mainly because it is not a terribly engaging book. It can be a bit dense at times, which slowed down the reading pace for me. Also, the book could get a bit repetitive now and then. Now, these are the issues that I found as a reader. I still think a good number of readers may find this book of interest, so let me tell you why you might want to read it. The book does provide a pretty good overview of how depression as a mental health condition evolved from classical times and balancing humors to today’s medical condition including the debate on using medications and/or talk therapies.

The book is divided into seven chapters covering broad historical periods. The book begins with a prologue about Samuel Johnson, who did suffer from what we now know as depression. I did find this prologue interesting, and I am curious now to read a bit more about Dr. Johnson down the road. In that regard, Lawlor’s book is a good book; I enjoy books that make me curious about other topics. From the prologue, we go on a historical tour. We see humors, then melancholia. Then it is a matter of debating if melancholia is something that just afflicts geniuses or if it is something darker? By the way, women suffer quite a bit along the way. Was it their wombs? Were they getting enough sex? There were all sorts of ideas about women and depression that today we may find wacky, to put it mildly, but back in their day those ideas were the serious thinking of the time. We go from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance then onward to the Enlightenment and then Victorians and eventually the modern era.

For such a compact book, Lawlor covers a lot of terrain, and he strives to provide a balanced presentation. This is specially evident in the last chapters where he discusses the role and influence of big pharmaceutical industries in the treatment of depression along with other options. It is easy to go negative when talking about the pharma industy (there are plenty of documented reasons to do so), but the author here tries to stay balanced. In the end, this is a pretty good historical overview on the topic. The book also includes a small glossary, a list for further reading, and a bibliography plus some illustrations.