Do busy psychiatrists need to pay any attention to the history of their discipline? Surely clinicians should concentrate on keeping up-to-date with the latest developments in their field. Medical history may provide amusing anecdotes about practice in the past, but can it inform modern treatment? Such a response, although familiar, seems rather strange, coming from psychiatrists, who, after all, spend their clinical day, taking ‘histories'. By doing so, they seek to understand their patients' problems in the context of their life history. They try to make sense of the present by reference to the past, whether it be events in the patient's childhood, previous conflicts or the individual's genetic inheritance. Given such a perspective, it seems reasonable that psychiatrists might also take an interest in the history of their profession. By attending to the history of its development, its past disputes and its intellectual inheritance, the psychiatrist can reach a deeper understanding of the current state of psychiatry.