The Medicalization of Suicide in England: Laymen, Physicians, and Cultural Change, 1500–1870

Defining a behavior as a medical problem can change both its moral and legal consequences. Responses to suicide were secularized in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as coroners’ juries increasingly adopted the medical explanation for self-destruction and excused suicides as innocent lunatics who were not criminally responsible for their act. It was medical laymen, however, not physicians, who were the principal champions of the medical explanation as they sought to alleviate the effects of the suicide laws on survivors. The change in societal attitudes and responses to suicide illustrates both the negotiated quality of disease definition and the way in which formal medical thinking constituted only one factor in a diverse political, religious, and cultural context.

Author(s): Michael MacDonald

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Volume 67, Issue S1 (pages 69–91)
Published in 1989