The New York Times has an extended book review that explores female hysteria in 19th Century Paris while demonstrating a curious hysterical blindness of its own.
The piece reviews a new and supposedly excellent book by Asti Hustvedt called ‘Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris’.
Hysteria is the presentation of seemingly neurological symptoms without any damage to the nervous system that could explain it. Although we can’t explain why many neurological disorders appear, neurological symptoms – almost by definition – are linked to clear and detectable damage.
Those that appear without the presence of such damage were traditionally labelled ‘hysteria’ although are now subsumed under various diagnoses such as conversion disorder or somatoform disorder.
Charcot was a highly influential 19th Century neurologist who essentially defined the shape of modern neurology and he was fascinated by hysteria. This is the subject of Asti Hustvedt’s new book.
I’ve not read the book but the review, and many pieces like it, focus on neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s interest in female hysteria as a demonstration of how the female body and sexuality were uniquely pathologised in 19th century medicine.
This would be interesting were it not for the fact that solely focusing on ‘female hysteria’ misrepresents what happened.
Not least because after more than two thousand years of hysteria being portrayed as being a uniquely feminine disorder, Charcot identified and campaigned for the existence of male hysteria.
This is from medical historian Mark Micale:
During the 1880s, Charcot published the case histories of more than 60 male “hysterics” and treated countless others in his daily hospital practice. Between a third and a quarter of the overall number of hysterical patients he presented in his printed works were men or children. In these writings, Charcot formulated an elaborate set of medical ideas about the disease in males, including a theory of aetiology, a model of symptomatology, and a programme of therapeutics.
Throughout this period, Charcot campaigned energetically for his theory of masculine hysteria, and by the time of his death, in 1893, the idea was widely accepted within mainstream European medical communities. Many of Charcot’s medical contemporaries judged his work on the topic to be among the most scientifically significant parts of his oeuvre, and the School of the Salpetriere, as it was called, was associated internationally with the theme of male hysteria.
It’s true to say that the female ‘hysterical patients’ gained much more attention (due to a combination of public fascination, Charcot’s love of showmanship and the recent invention of photography) but it’s interesting to note that this pattern has continued into the modern day.
This is despite the fact that’s the famous neurologist’s own interests were far more balanced. A curious historical parallel.
Link to review in the NYT.
Link details of ‘Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris’.