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Doubting Thomas
  1. Neil John Pickering
  1. Correspondence to Dr Neil John Pickering, Bioethics Centre, University of Otago, PO Box 913, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand; neil.pickering{at}

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Obituary: Thomas S Szasz (15 April 1920 to 8 September 2012)

Thomas Szasz, the radical critic of state-supported psychiatry, and root and branch sceptic about mental illness, died in September 2012. Based on the obituary1 and editorial comment in The Lancet2 and the response his work commonly elicits, it is evident that there will be mixed reviews of his impact and of the cogency of his position.

Certainly, some have seen him as a notable figure from the past. There is a sense in which, as far as Szasz's critique of psychiatry goes, it did not really change at all in its essence from the time it was first explicitly expressed in his writings of the 1960s right up to his last publications and talks in the 2010s. He started his 1960 paper The Myth of Mental Illness3 with the assertion that there is no such thing as mental illness, and this has been an underlying pedal note to all his many pronouncements in this area ever since. Personally, I have always found his written interventions in debates right up to the present to be highly readable and intellectually sharp; he was adept at creating variations on the Szaszian theme. In one of his earlier book length texts, The Manufacture of Madness,4 he likens the contemporary idea that people have mental illness to the historical idea that some people were witches, and he parallels the institutions of modern state-supported psychiatry to those of the Inquisition. In articles he later published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, he likened mental illness to ‘phlogiston’—the non-existent substance that supposedly explained combustion5 and claimed the term ‘mental …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; internally peer reviewed.

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