“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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Female Trouble: Headaches and the Modern Woman

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Christine Yao, PhD*


Who among us has not experienced the dreaded throb of cranial pain that accompanies stress and anxiety? Headaches seem to be the physiological manifestation of modern life’s tensions: perhaps more so than aches in any other part of the body, pain in the head symbolically ties together physical, mental, and emotional distresses.[1] In popular culture, headaches are also seen as a particularly female trait – think of the old misogynistic joke about a woman pleading a headache as an excuse to avoid a man’s sexual advances. While acting as humor on the basis of supposed female frailty and sexuality, the alleged headache functions to indicate the inner conflict the woman has between the different demands she faces because of her gender and her will as an individual. Managing these clashing societal demands and personal desires is, as it were, a headache.

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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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