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Ben Shephard (1948-2017)

In October of last year, staff and students at IWM heard the sad news that the historian and writer Ben Shephard had died. His contributions ranged over a number of subjects but perhaps the most groundbreaking was his study of soldiers and psychiatrists, A War of Nerves (2000). In this, he tracked the progression of military psychiatry, from the Shellshock of the First World War through to the advent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of America’s involvement in Vietnam and onto the emergence of Gulf War Syndrome. A War of Nerves generated insights into the lessons of military psychiatry which had been learned and forgotten, and, also into the driving social forces that have acted on evolving conceptualisations and interventions in trauma related stress reactions. 

The study of psychiatry at war inevitably takes one into the darker terrain of the human psyche. As a speaker, however, Ben was able temper this with good humour. In a talk given at ‘The Musical Brain Conference’ in 2013 he posed the question, ‘why was there no great poets to come from the Second World War?’, giving the answer, ‘because they were all doing public relations for the RAF.’ It is perhaps indicative of Ben’s character then, that the book’s closing commentary on psychiatric intervention in war reminded readers of our natural resilience. This is an often overlooked point in the field of trauma studies.

Sue Shephard, wife of Ben and a respected biographer and historian, has very kindly donated a selection of her late husband’s books to the Imperial War Museum’s library. These will extend the museum’s existing range of books on the subject and complement the rich collections of personal papers held at the museum.       

Occupational Therapy, 78 Neuropathic Hospital, Egypt © IWM.

Also donated was a photographic album which documents events at 78 Neuropathic Hospital in Egypt. The album was presented to Brigadier GWB James by Lieutenant Colonel I Sutton, who ran the Neurotic Division there. The images offer a fascinating glimpse into military psychiatry during the Second World War. One of the photographs – of a serviceman engaged in occupational therapy – illustrates the graduated process of returning soldiers to active duty. Another depicts a group of visiting Egyptian psychiatrists – an insight into the transmission of psychiatric knowledge across national boundaries during wartime.     

Visiting Egyptian Psychiatrists, 78 Neuropathic Hospital, Egypt © IWM.

Ben Shephard’s writing will be missed by many, from the general reader to the hardened academic. That A War of Nerves sits as convincingly on the university library bookshelf as it does in the high street bookshop is a testament to its incisive, yet lucid, social commentary. It is, I trust, a fitting tribute that some of the materials he gathered will continue to guide research into military psychiatry, the study of trauma and beyond. 

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