Professor Matthew Smith



Personal statement

I joined the University of Strathclyde and the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH) in 2011, after completing a PhD and post-doctoral work at the University of Exeter's Centre for Medical History.  My research and teaching have focussed on three primary areas within the history of health and medicine: mental health and psychiatry; allergy and immunology; and food and nutrition. 

My books and co-edited volumes include The First Resort: The History of Social Psychiatry in the United States (Columbia UP, 2023); Proteins, Pathologies and Politics: Dietary Innovation and Disease from the Nineteenth Century (Bloomsbury, 2019, co-edited by David Gentilcore);  Preventing Mental Illness: Past, Present and Future (Palgrave, 2018, co-edited by Despo Kritsotaki and Vicky Long); Another Person's Poison: A History of Food Allergy (Columbia UP, 2015); Deinstitutionalisation and After: Post-War Psychiatry in the Western World (Palgrave, 2016, co-edited by Despo Kritsotaki and Vicky Long); Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD (Reaktion, 2012) and An Alternative History of Hyperactivity: Food Additives and the Feingold Diet (Rutgers UP, 2011) as well as a special issue of Humanities and Social Sciences Communications on Socioeconomic Factors and Mental Health (co-edited by Lucas Richert).  With Cathy Coleborne, I co-edit the Palgrave book series Mental Health in Historical Perspective, which has published over 30 books since 2015.

I am currently writing a book about the ongoing relevance of the history of health and medicine (Polity) and working on an co-edited volume with Alexander Dunst, Nikolas Henckes, Despo Kritsotaki and Chantal Marazia on the history of social movements and health.  My work on the history of social psychiatry project has spurred an interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a preventive mental health policy.  During the pandemic, I co-led (with Mike Danton) a Scottish Universities Insight Initiative project called Peace of Mind: Exploring Universal Basic Income's Potential to Improve Mental Health.   I am currently working on a Royal Society of Edinburgh-funded project about the history of hydrotherapy and mental health, which I would like to develop into a larger project.

I believe strongly that historical research can have a significant impact on public policy and decision making.  As such, I have tried to engage with the public as much as I can through broadcasting, public lecturing, blogging and speaking to health and education professionals and policy makers.  My efforts in these areas were enhanced in 2012 when I was named an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker.  I have written for medical publications, such as The Lancet and the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), presented my research to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to hundreds of employees of the mental health charity Mind and to the Scottish Mental Health Arts Fesitival.   My blogs for The and other other outlets have been read by 500k people.  I host a podcast called History in Action, where I interview other historians who want to make a difference.

I previously served as Vice-Dean of Research for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (HaSS), following stints as Co-Director of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, the Director of Research for History and Deputy Head of the School of Humanities.  I have also served on the Executive Committee of the Society for the Social History of Medicine and the Royal Society of Edinburgh's Young Academy of Scotland.  I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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I am happy to supervise a variety of MRes and PhD projects in the history of health and medicine. These include mental health and psychiatry, food and nutrition, allergy and immunology and child health.  I am also happy to consider supervision of other topics examining the history of health and medicine in Canada, the United States and Scotland. Please get in touch if you have a research idea!

I teach on a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate classes, focussing primarily on the history of health and medicine, but also North American history.  My specialist courses include Madness and Society from Ancient Times to the Present; The Price of Health: The UK, US and Canada since 1800; and Food and Health in the West in the Twentieth Century.  In addition, I have taught on Disease and Society, USA History, Historiography, Cultures of Empire, Glasgow: History, Culture and Identity and other classes.


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Research Interests

When do certain behavioural characteristics become a psychiatric disorder? How do we know what foods are healthy for us? Why have rates of food allergy and intolerance escalated in recent years? What are the root causes of mental illness?  My research involves analysing questions such as these from a historical perspective not only in the interest of charting our past, but also in the hopes of informing our future.

Professional Activities

Health and Care Futures: thematic areas workshop
Free Thinking
PhD Examination - University of Warwick
Financial Insecurity, Mental Health and Care Leavers
Free Thinking Broadcast
Keynote - Australia and New Zealand Association for the History of Medicine

More professional activities


An Ounce of Prevention: A History of Social Psychiatry, 1939-Present
Smith, Matthew (Fellow)
"In 2010 I attended an international conference, entitled 'The Social Determinants of Mental Health' and held in Chicago. Its focus was to address the socioeconomic factors, ranging from poverty to violence, believed to cause mental illness. The participants, including David Satcher, the former US Surgeon General, not only advocated a more socially-informed approach to understanding mental health, but also wanted to launch a political movement that would place prevention at the heart of mental health policy and clinical practice.

Such an approach to mental health was not new, but its history has not been written and so was unknown to most of the conference participants. Building on the mental hygiene and child guidance movements of the early twentieth century, and reaching its peak during the 1950s and 1960s, the psychiatric and political movement known as social psychiatry similarly advocated a preventive approach to mental illness, which stressed alleviating social deprivation and inequality. But, although social psychiatry would become a major force within American psychiatry and politics, influencing both presidents of the American Psychiatric Association and the legislation of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, it faded away in the subsequent decades, as biological approaches to mental illness became the dominant force in American psychiatry.

Given the World Health Organisation's recent warnings that mental illness will become the world's most common malady within twenty years (Mental Health Atlas, 2011) - not to mention the escalating social and economic cost of such conditions - it is not surprising that preventive approaches to mental illness are again attracting attention. This project seeks not only to analyse a neglected chapter in the historiography of psychiatry, but also to inform current attempts to address the social determinants of mental health by examining the successes and failures of social psychiatry.

The project is divided into three sections. The first examines the intellectual origins of social psychiatry, including its roots in the mental hygiene and child guidance movements of the early twentieth century. Widespread interest in social psychiatry escalated not only because it addressed concerns about the rising rates of mental illness, but also because it represented an interdisciplinary collaboration between psychiatrists and social scientists that inspired a wide audience in academic and public policy circles. The project will address the historical factors involved in this cooperation, and assess both the benefits and disadvantages of such an interdisciplinary approach to mental health. The second section of the project examines the zenith of social psychiatry, as it threatened to eclipse psychoanalysis and biological psychiatry (which stressed neurological explanations of and pharmaceutical treatments for mental illness) during the 1960s. Unfortunately for social psychiatrists, however, the interest in preventive approaches waned during the 1970s and 1980s, as psycho-pharmacology became more popular amongst both psychiatrists and their patients, and economic and political pressures deflated the socially progressive zeal of American politicians and mental health professionals. The third section of the project will examine not only the decline of social psychiatry, but also explore why preventive approaches to mental illness have once again found favour in both the US and elsewhere."
01-Jan-2014 - 31-Jan-2017
Preventing Mental Illness Past Present and Future Witness Seminar
Smith, Matthew (Principal Investigator)
01-Jan-2016 - 31-Jan-2016
Health History in Action : The Society for the Social History of Medicine Postgraduate Career Development Workshop and Conference
Smith, Matthew (Principal Investigator)
01-Jan-2015 - 31-Jan-2015
DSM-5 and the Future of Psychiatric Diagnosis
Smith, Matthew (Academic)
06-Jan-2014 - 08-Jan-2014
One Person's Food is Another's Poison: Food Allergy in the Twentieth Century - Fellowship
Smith, Matthew (Principal Investigator)
05-Jan-2011 - 04-Jan-2012
Mental Health Futures Collaborative
Cogan, Nicola (Principal Investigator) Parra Rodriguez, Mario (Principal Investigator) Fleming, Leanne (Principal Investigator) Quinn, Neil (Principal Investigator) Tse, Dwight (Principal Investigator) Knifton, Lee (Principal Investigator) McCann, Lisa (Principal Investigator) Maguire, Roma (Principal Investigator) Smith, Matthew (Principal Investigator) Graham, Christopher Darryl (Principal Investigator) Grealy, Madeleine (Principal Investigator) Stephen, Susan (Principal Investigator) Weir, Natalie Mcfadyen (Principal Investigator) Donnachie, Craig (Principal Investigator) Cameron, Julie (Principal Investigator) Kane, Tony (Co-investigator) Lakey, Trevor (Academic) Donovan, Kevin (Fellow)
This Engage with Strathclyde event is aimed at all those with an interest in mental health including people with lived experience, NHS and social care personnel and staff, occupational health and human resource management staff, student support services, university student and staff, academics, private and public sector and other personnel interested in mental health research and knowledge exchange.

12-Jan-2023 - 12-Jan-2023

More projects

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Professor Matthew Smith

Tel: 444 8353