The Moon and Madness by Niall McCrae

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The Moon and Madness by Niall McCrae

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: Does the moon make you mad? In this erudite overview of the history of the treatment of mental illness and the history of cosmology, the conclusion is – we don't know. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating journey.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 250 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Imprint Academic
ISBN: 978-1845402143

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A book entitled The Moon and Madness has the potential to be a pile of New Age hokum. This learned and academic treatise by Niall McCrae is very far from hokum, and there is not a whiff of New Age hanging over it. We probably all have an old folklore image in our minds of lunatics in the asylum howling at the full moon. Of course, the very word 'lunatic' has its origins in the moon. McCrae tries to separate myth and fact in this fascinating book.

The book is divided into two. In the first half, McCrae provides a history of cosmology from the ancient Egyptians to today. This is an elegantly written gallop through western philosophical thought that is accessible and interesting. Although this section is erudite it has a wealth of intriguing information. So for instance, in 1572 astrologers suggested the Star of Bethlehem had returned. It was in fact a supernova and its arrival overturned the Greek notion of an eternal firmament. McCrae combines the cosmology with a history of the treatment of madness, which is equally intriguing. He swings easily from the Greeks' view of epilepsy, Darwin's view of the connection between the menstrual and lunar periods, to the rise of the asylum and the widespread use of lobotomies. I had no idea that Franz Mesmer used magnets to create a trance-like state in patients, and that this was used in operative surgery until the arrival of chemical anaesthesia in the 1850s. I liked the way McCrae dropped in titbits of information, such as Francis Bacon's advice to people with 'moist brains' to take Lignus aloe, rosemary or frankincense at full moon. He handles the divide between philosophy and pathology well, and the way that this divide has changed over time. This section could easily be a much longer book of its own, and it is to McCrae's credit that he makes it so readable.

The second section of the book deals with modern research into the possible effect of the moon on the mind. This is an in-depth a survey of the literature on the subject, and as such becomes more of an academic paper. McCrae makes many valid points, such as the variation in the way that researchers have defined 'full moon', and the dismissive attitude of the psychiatric establishment to the hearsay and intuition of nurses. McCrae, as a trained psychiatric nurse who was inspired to write this book by his own and his colleagues experiences, has obviously got his own bone to pick with the establishment on this latter point. McCrae's survey of the evidence either way – that the moon has an effect, or the moon doesn't – seems to conclude that the research is inconclusive, and that further research is needed.

The second part of this book did leave this particular reader a little at sea. It becomes quite specialist and rather dry. I longed for some individual case studies to liven up the prose. I am sure that it was accurate and correct, but for a non-academic it was heavy going. There was a moment when McCrae wrote very briefly of his own time as a psychiatric nurse. The situation leapt into life. Should McCrae chose to write about his own experiences, I would certainly be keen to read them.

The Moon and Madness is a great topic for a book, and McCrae certainly does it justice. The book is more scholarly and more thorough than I had expected. I learnt a lot, and I shall look at the moon with awe and wonder next time there is a clear night sky. As for whether the moon does make us mad, well, after many many centuries and the application of some of the greatest minds of all time….the jury is still out.

Further reading suggestions:

The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos by Michael D Lemonick

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam

Voluntary Madness: My Year Lost and Found in the Loony Bin by Norah Vincent

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