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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A Serpentine Arms Race: S. Weir Mitchell, George Halford, and the Most Venomous of Snakes

by Dr. Peter Hobbins*


The title of ‘world’s deadliest snake’ has long been contested, and remains difficult to adjudicate. The criteria are varied, including: 1) the annual human death toll; 2) the innate toxicity of the venom for laboratory animals; 3) the rarity of the serpent, and 4) whether it is a shy or aggressive species. The clinical impact of bites, whether leading to rapid death from respiratory paralysis, awful and extensive ulceration, or permanent disability, tends to be a lower-level consideration – except, naturally, for those who have been bitten.

Until the 1860s, however, it was unclear whether there was any meaningful difference between the venoms of poisonous snakes around the world. Indeed, for centuries it had been presumed that they all possessed the same ubiquitous ‘venom’. The potency of their bites was instead believed to depend largely upon environmental factors, such as the ambient temperature, and especially by the malevolence of the serpent itself. “The cause of the Venom is to be imputed to the Spirits enraged”, wrote French apothecary Moyse Charas in 1670, “and not to any other thing or parts in the Vipers body”.

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Prescribing from the Bookshelf: S. Weir Mitchell and the Therapeutic Value of Restricting Reading

– by Ph.D. candidate Mary Mahoney*


My dissertation focuses on the history of bibliotherapy, or the use of books as medicine. I recently travelled to the College of Physicians to examine the papers of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, a physician perhaps best known for his invention of the “rest cure” to treat neurasthenia. While Mitchell certainly believed in the therapeutic value of reading in his own life – both reading and writing fiction throughout his career – his reputation has been shaped inexorably by his belief in the therapeutic value of restricting reading as a form of medicine. Neurasthenia was a disease that manifested itself in symptoms that affected the mind and body, including headaches, depression, numb limbs and exhaustion. While Mitchell genuinely believed that restricting reading was vital to resting the body and returning it to health, his female patients felt deprived because reading was a vital part of their lives.

Reading was an act that S. Weir Mitchell understood in bodily terms. Writing in Fat and Blood, his foundational work on the rest cure, he wrote about reading as an act that proved dangerous for bodies suffering from nervous exhaustion. Reading posed a threat for both the strain it placed on a reader’s eyes and the energy it drew from the body. A case study from Fat and Blood details these dangers.

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Books of War

by Robert D. Hicks, Ph.D., Director, Mütter Museum,
Historical Medical Library, and Wood Institute for the History of Medicine*


Historians of the book anatomize books for their bindings, printers, paper, illustrators, and consider past readers and cultural contexts. Jorge Luis Borges wrote that a book is “an axis of innumerable relationships.”[i] A current research project has led to an inadvertent discovery and a hypothesis about relationships.

The inadvertent discovery began with my noticing ownership signatures in Civil War-related works and College bookplate data (signifying how books came into the collection). The digital catalogue of the Historical Medical Library does not include information on bookplates or inscriptions written by authors or past owners. I hypothesize that the ownership evidence in the books can re-create the social world of wartime physicians. Three-fourths of approximately 140 Fellows of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia engaged with war work at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

My discovery was a book owned by Silas Weir Mitchell, MD (1829-1914), one of the most colorful, ambitious, famous, and polymathic American physicians of the 19th century and an influential Fellow of the College. Overlooked by scholars among the College’s vast Mitchell holdings is a war memoir by a former army surgeon, John Gardner Perry’s Letters from a Surgeon of the Civil War (compiled by his wife, Martha Derby Perry), published by Little, Brown of Boston in 1906.[ii] The inside front cover bears Mitchell’s bookplate (his name printed as “Weir Mitchell”) with an armorial device and the motto, “sapiens qui assiduous” (roughly, “the wise man is assiduous”) and a library date stamp of February 3, 1913. On the page opposite, the owner signed his name, “Weir Mitchell.”

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