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Szykierski, D. (2008). The Northfield Experiment and the Enigma of Psychiatry without Psychiatrists: Exclusion by Inclusion of the Radical Contribution of W. R. Bion. Organ. Soc. Dyn., 8(1):38-62.

(2008). Organizational and Social Dynamics, 8(1):38-62

The Northfield Experiment and the Enigma of Psychiatry without Psychiatrists: Exclusion by Inclusion of the Radical Contribution of W. R. Bion

Dorit Szykierski

The enthusiasm surrounding the innovations of British psychiatry during the Second World War, especially the experiment at the Northfield Military Psychiatric Hospital, disguises a chaotic and complex reality of political struggles. These struggles led to a construction of the history of the Northfield experiment based on a distinction between the first Northfield experiment of Bion and Rickman and the second Northfield experiment of Foulkes, Main, and Bridger. Such a distinction may be true to the essential differences between the diverse approaches at Northfield, but, for the most part, it serves to exclude the first Northfield experiment by including it in the discourse as a distinguished but undecipherable enigma. A close reading of Bion's papers from the 1940s reveals that radical intervention subverted the established conventions of psychiatry, as well as accepted practices in the military. Military psychiatry was unnerved by the development of a technique to enable the empowerment of hospitalized soldiers, just as the innovations in military psychiatry aroused anxiety in the political arena. In addition, psychiatrists were concerned that medical authority would be undermined by the application of a technique requiring no medical knowledge. To this day, the difficulties in understanding Bion's papers on the subject indicate the perception of radical threat embedded in this experiment. The radical threat clarifies why Bion's commanders abruptly ended the experiment, and elucidates why the discourse about the Northfield experiment is construed around the distinction between the first experiment and the second experiment, thus enabling the exclusion of Bion's radical innovations by their inclusion as a respectable enigma.

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