A Case of Hysteria

The Anatomy of Insanity

Hospital records, archives, memoirs, and letters all help flesh out the controversial history of the treatment of women for the phantom ailment of “hysteria.” The Anatomy of Melancholy, written by Robert Burton and first published in 1621, is part medical text, part philosophical inquiry. Before diagnoses of hysteria came into vogue, “female melancholy” (i.e., depression) was believed to be connected to sexual frustration. Henry Monro’s 1851 Remarks on Insanity: Its Nature and Treatment posits that insanity is a hereditary disease caused by “loss of nervous tone.” He considers the “proneness of the female sex towards insanity” as arising from “an exhaustion of vital power” and that their insanity comes from a “physical exciting cause,” connected to their “uterine condition.” In the late nineteenth century, the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, under the guidance of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, became the epicenter of the study of mental illness. The 2011 publication Medical Muses, along with the 1891 volume Traité clinique et thérapeutique de l’hysterie detail how females institutionalized at the hospital were professionally treated with hypnosis, piercing, and demonic exorcism.

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