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The Cure for Female Hysteria by a Victorian Era Doctor
The history of ‘female hysteria’: Unpacking the controversy
For ages, women were often diagnosed with “hysteria” by medical practitioners, a supposed mental health disorder that conveniently justified any actions or symptoms that were deemed inappropriate or uncomfortable for men.
In the past, a variety of conditions affecting women, including a fondness for writing, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and infertility, were classified as “female hysteria” for nearly two centuries. The mistaken belief that women are inherently prone to mental and behavioral problems has existed for much longer.
The term “hysteria” originated in ancient Greece, where Hippocrates and Plato referred to it as the “wandering womb”, or hysteria, which was thought to cause a range of physical and mental illnesses.
“The uterus was believed to wander around the body like an animal, hungry for semen.”
Female hysteria was one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in the 18th and 19th centuries, but what was it exactly? What were the symptoms, how did doctors attempt to cure it?
In the history of medicine and philosophy, the concept of female hysteria has been around for centuries.
However, it became more prevalent in the 18th century. In 1748, French physician Joseph Raulin described hysteria as a “vaporous ailment” — affection vaporeuse in French — an illness spread through air pollution in large urban areas. Raulin described hysteria as an illness caused by air pollution in large cities, and he believed that women were more prone to it because of their lazy and irritable nature.
Another French physician, François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, defined hysteria as emotional instability characterized by sudden changes and heightened sensitivity of the soul.
“Some of the hysteria symptoms that he named included: “a swollen abdomen, suffocating angina [chest pain] or dyspnea [shortness of breath], dysphagia [difficulty swallowing], […] cold extremities, tears and laughter, oscitation [yawning], pandiculation [stretching and yawning], delirium, a close and driving pulse, and abundant and clear urine.”
Although both men and women could be diagnosed with hysteria, it was often used to explain away women’s behaviors or symptoms that were uncomfortable for men.
In the 18th century, the idea of female hysteria was a widely recognized diagnosis. Francois Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, a French physician, agreed with his predecessors that this condition mostly affected women and suggested that men were rarely hysterical.
De Sauvages believed that sexual deprivation was a common cause of female hysteria. He even presented a case study of a nun who was cured of hysteria after receiving sexual pleasure from a well-intentioned barber.
Another popular way of treating hysteria was through mesmerism, a supposed psychosomatic therapy introduced by Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician who worked in Europe during the 18th century. Mesmer claimed that all living beings were influenced by magnetism, which he believed could cure a variety of ailments, including hysteria.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a significant amount of discussion regarding female hysteria and its potential causes. One prominent figure in this field was American physician Silas Weir Mitchell, who promoted the “rest cure” as a treatment for hysteria around the 1850s. This treatment involved prolonged bed rest and the avoidance of all physical and intellectual activity. Mitchell prescribed this treatment primarily to women he believed had hysteria while advising men to engage in outdoor exercise.
The rest cure became famous after Mitchell prescribed it to American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who found the experience so traumatic that she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a psychological horror story that portrays the slow psychological deterioration of a woman who is forced to undergo this treatment by her doctor, husband, and brother.
In France, neuropsychiatrist Pierre Janet, active from the 1880s to the early 1900s, believed that hysteria resulted from a person’s warped perception of physical illness. Janet described hysteria as a nervous disease characterized by a dissociation of consciousness, often resulting in somnambulism, double personalities, and involuntary convulsions.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, also took an interest in hysteria. However, his views on the causes of hysteria varied throughout his career. Freud argued that hysteria was the conversion of psychological issues into physical symptoms, often involving an element of erotic suppression.