Two years ago, a Harvard sociologist produced a masterful and generally acclaimed history of the American health industry, "The Social Transformation of American Medicine." In the book, author Paul Starr recorded the decades of progress and problems of medicine and aroused new interest in scholars and the public in a field that touches all our lives.

Now, much in the Paul Starr tradition, Jerrold S. Maxmen surveys the world of mental health.

It would be a bit of overstatement to suggest that Maxmen does for psychiatry what Starr did for medicine. But Maxmen does succeed brilliantly in providing an overview of psychiatric history together with an analysis of psychiatry today.

Quite properly, Maxmen beings the book with a chapter called "Psychiatry's Second Revolution." It is impossible, Maxmen argues, for anyone to understand what psychiatry has become without a clear understanding of its limits in the past. As Maxmen explains, for example: "Freud's first visit to the United States in 1909 . . . thoroughly revolutionized American psychiatry from the organic to the psychoanalytic . . ."

It was not until the 1970s that psychiatrists were able to use the major advances in psychopharmacology that began with the discovery of lithium shortly after World War II. Despite the widening array of drugs available to treat schizophrenics and manic-depressives, such controversy surrounded their use (as opposed to the traditional talk therapies) that it was only quite recently that psychiatry became scientific.

It is this so-called scientific psychiatry which is meant by the "New Psychiatry" in Maxmen's title.

To demystify the science, Maxmen carefully takes the reader through the maze of the "new psychiatric" approach, including explanations of diagnosis and treatment. The complex world of psychopharmacology is explored -- as is the private world of psychiatrists themselves. Maxmen is determined to clarify how modern training and specialty education form the psychiatrist's professional personality.

The results of these efforts are quite evident -- a new and valuable social history of psychiatry has been supplied us. And Maxmen has succeeded in also providing the reader with an effective guidebook to the techniques and rationales behind psychiatric therapies today.

For anyone who has been involved in the psychiatric world -- either as a provider or a user -- and for anyone interested in the American medical scene, "The New Psychiatry" is a must.