A Transition Pioneer


March 29, 1853 – Birth date of Gilbert Ballet. If I left it at this, you would probably ask: who on earth was Gilbert Ballet?

Gilbert Louis Simeon Ballet was one of what I like to call the “transition pioneers”: the psychiatrists who between about 1880 and 1920 worked very hard within institutions and universities, pushing psychiatry out of the still somewhat unscientific (to some, almost shady) corner where it had formerly been. They helped to transform it into a respectable, scientific discipline: a recognized part of the medical curriculum.

This is a group of early psychiatrists that is largely forgotten now, because they themselves brought no shocking or great innovations; but they made a wider public understand the value of professional psychiatry. They generated esteem not just for themselves, but for their line of work.

Frenchman Gilbert Ballet had been trained himself by one of the earlier innovators, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893). In 1900, Ballet became a professor in psychiatry.

In 1904 he founded what can be called the first French university-supported psychiatry clinic, as a department in the old Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Paris. This clinic was set up specifically for observation of delusional patients, and of course to offer beginning physicians a training in the practice of psychiatry.

Reaching Out


In 1909, Ballet started a special tradition at the Sainte-Anne hospital in Paris: every Sunday morning he gave a public lesson.

In some of these lectures he presented an actual patient with some kind of mental illness, so people could understand what various kinds of mental illness meant both to the patients and to the psychiatrist trying to treat them. Perhaps Ballet also tried in this way to counter the prejudice that the “insane” were hardly human, or beings to be afraid of.

One of the people who followed these public lectures still vividly remembered Ballet many years after his death:

“Every Sunday morning he gave his lessons, which attracted a large and very varied audience. There were old and already retired doctors, students in the humanities or philosophy, old ladies, elegant young women. If so many people voluntarily attended these Sunday lectures, it was because Gilbert Ballet spoke well and easily, and he knew how to get everyone’s attention. He had charm, finesse and wit. Often he adjusted his glasses with his right hand while drawing an ironic conclusion with a smile. And he knew how to bring an illustrative anecdote just when things would become a little dull… It was a pleasure to hear him speak.”

In short, what we have here, in the early 1900s (a time with no sound movies or TV shows) was one of the first occasions where a professional psychiatrist deliberately tried to appeal directly to a larger public.

Handbook


Ballet was an interesting figure in many other ways too. He wrote about very specific types of illness, such as “chronic hallucinatory psychosis” that affected elderly people, about hypochondria and paranoia. He also wrote about the history of medicine.

But perhaps most important was the Traité de Pathologie Mentale (Treatise on Mental Illness) that he published in 1903. For half a century, this would be the primary handbook on psychiatry in France. Doctors could also use it for diagnosis, like psychiatrists use the DSM-5 today.

– Ballet died in 1916, aged 62. As I said, people like him were no true innovators. But I think we may call them pioneers just as well.