Joseph Guislain


According to Joseph Guislain, the first official psychiatrist of the Southern Netherlands, mental illnesses mainly had psychological causes. He was the first to treat mentally ill patients in Ghent based on science and the first who called for a more humane treatment of the mentally ill.  

Melancholie Guislain Melancholie Guislain

 “The illness whereby man no longer understands himself, let alone society.”

Joseph Guislain (1797-1860) was a supporter of moral therapy when he was appointed chief physician of the Ghent institutions for the mentally ill in 1828, a position that made him the first recognised psychiatrist in the Southern Netherlands. Strong emotions such as love, sadness, despair and anger were thought to be responsible for mental illness. Guislain believed that, because they were so burdensome, they made the nervous system morally hypersensitive. To him, therefore, mental illness was first and foremost a disorder of the mind – a change in the sensitivity of the brain, with the result that all stimuli were felt differently (i.e. painfully).

For Guislain, the moral causes were the most important, although he thought that in certain cases an organic disorder could also lie at the root of a psychological illness, like alcoholism, typhus, breast-feeding or old age.

In 1835, Guislain believed that in nine out of ten cases, madness had a moral cause. In 1852, he revised this to just two thirds, in a certain sense personifying the evolution of psychiatry at the time. In the second half of the 19th century, organic theories of this kind about the causes of mental illness became more important than psychological explanations.

 Guislain’s significance for psychiatry was threefold:. 

  • As chief physician, the treatment he provided for the patients was for the first time based on science.
  • As a professor at the University of Ghent, he taught students about madness and published literature on the subject.
  • And as an activist for the more humane treatment of the mentally ill, he also improved the way they were treated outside of Ghent. He denounced all kinds of abuses and provided the necessary regulation to avoid it.