“Her Sex Points to Hysteria”: Diagnostic Narratives in a Student Notebook

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Lindsey Grubbs*


Hysteria posed a unique challenge to the medical profession in the late nineteenth century. As clinicians increasingly relied upon advances in instrumentation and laboratory science to diagnose organic disease, hysteria remained an enigma, mimicking organic disorder without discernable cause. S. Weir Mitchell, notorious for his work with the disorder, understood that what he once called “mysteria” was a condition with “hazy boundaries” that could not responsibly be drawn.[1] But despite this acknowledgement (or perhaps because of it), he spent much of his career attempting to delineate between organic and hysterical disorders.

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in the Historical Medical Library researching for my dissertation the role of literature in the creation of new psychiatric diagnoses. Seeking evidence of how Mitchell employed narrative techniques as he disseminated his vision of hysteria, I spent most of my time, of course, with the Mitchell collections. His correspondence with other physicians, patients, and literary figures, his case notes, and his lecture notes demonstrated how deeply his diagnostic and literary interests supported one another. While taking a brief Mitchell-hiatus, however, I found a less glamorous set of materials that provided unexpected insight into the solidification of hysterical diagnoses in this period: the clinical notebooks of Charles P. Mercer, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. These writings are a fascinating window into just how the diagnostic gaze was trained in Mitchell’s Philadelphia.

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Crying in the Library

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Heather Christle*


In 1906, Alvin Borgquist–a little-known graduate student at Clark University–published the world’s first in-depth psychological study of crying, and then appears to have vanished back into a quiet, private life in his native Utah.  His study is moving, strange, detached, threaded through with the racist and colonialist assumptions common to this era (and, distressingly, our own). The questionnaire he crafted to solicit data on typical crying behaviors fascinates me, forming as it does a kind of accidental poem.  Here, for instance, is Borgquist’s first question:

As a child did you ever cry till you almost lost consciousness or things seemed to change about you?  Describe a cry with utter abandon. Did it bring a sense of utter despair? Describe as fully as you can such an experience in yourself, your subjective feelings, how it grew, what caused and increased it, its physical symptoms, and all its after effects. What is wanted is a picture of a genuine and unforced fit or crisis of pure misery.[1]

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Race, Genitals, and Walt Whitman in Dr. Leidy’s Lectures

– by Christopher Willoughby, Ph.D.*


Over the last five years, I have spent months conducting research at the Historical Medical Library at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. In my dissertation, I examine the history of slavery and racial science in American medical schools before the Civil War, and my research at the College of Physicians played an essential role in completing this project. One of the central tasks that I undertook at the Historical Medical Library was an intensive study of Joseph Leidy, the Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical Department for much of the second half of the nineteenth century.

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I Love the Flu

– by Emily T.H. Redman*


I love the flu.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t love the fever and chills, the runny nose, the sore throat, or the all-encompassing ache that seems to span from deep in the bones all the way to one’s hair follicles. I don’t love the complications—the respiratory infections, the myocarditis. In particular, I really don’t love the potential for death. What I love the flu for is divorced from these horrors, and lies in the pedagogical value afforded by teaching students about the history of influenza epidemics. Influenza epidemics are fascinating on a micro level, an evolving and mutating virus hitting the body with a slightly different impact every year. But flu season hits us on another level; as we collectively respond to epidemics it shapes our cultures, ideas, and traditions.

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George Outerbridge: A Philadelphia Fellow in WWI France

– by Paige Randazzo, Digital Projects intern


The year 2017 marks the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I. In memory of those Fellows of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia who served in times of war, the Historical Medical Library will be creating a geo-referenced digital timeline using the letters and photographs of College Fellow and World War I surgeon George Outerbridge (1881-1967). The collection was donated to the Library in 1972 after they were found by the residents of George Outerbridge’s former home.

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