The Civil War phantom limb

Below is an early report of a phantom limb – the perception of feeling from a limb which has since been removed – from the partly-autobiographical fiction of American Civil War physician and writer Silas Weir Mitchell.

It recounts the effect in a Civil War soldier who had both legs amputated after suffering battlefield injuries.

It was published in Section III of Mitchell’s sarcastically titled partly autobiographical book The Autobiography of a Quack, available in full on the web.

I got hold of my own identity in a moment or two, and was suddenly aware of a sharp cramp in my left leg. I tried to get at it to rub it with my single arm, but, finding myself too weak, hailed an attendant. “Just rub my left calf,” said I, “if you please.”

“Calf?” said he. “You ain’t none. It’s took off.”

“I know better,” said I. “I have pain in both legs.”

“Wall, I never!” said he. “You ain’t got nary leg.”

As I did not believe him, he threw off the covers, and, to my horror, showed me that I had suffered amputation of both thighs, very high up.

“That will do,” said I, faintly.

Although earlier accounts of phantom limbs have been found in retrospect, Mitchell was the first clinician to seriously consider this phenomenon and he included it, and other neurological conditions, in his fiction.

A recent paper [pdf] in the journal Neurology examined how his writing used these syndromes and what his fiction tells us about the disorders that affect the brain.

pdf of paper ‘The neurologic content of S. Weir Mitchell‚Äôs fiction’.
Link to page with excerpt, with links to full text.

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