A Case of Hysteria

Theater Of The Hysterics

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825–1893) was the longtime director of the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where he established a neurological clinic to investigate mental illness. Among the theories he explored was that the condition was a disease inherited by degenerates, and rooted in weak nerves. Working primarily with female patients, he also argued extreme susceptibility to hypnosis was an early symptom of hysteria. His popular lectures at the hospital were often punctuated by spectacular presentations of patients having hysterical spasms, leading contemporaries to think there was an epidemic of the disease within the female population. However, historians today believe some of these patients deliberately engaged in theatrical outbursts in order to maintain their privileged status at the clinic. One of these women, Marie “Blanche” Wittmann, was known as the Queen of Hysterics, and is seen in the etching displayed here, “performing” under hypnosis for an enraptured audience. After Charcot’s death she worked in the hospital’s radiology lab with Marie Curie. Despite his pseudoscientific approach to hysteria, Charcot made enormous contributions to medicine, laying the groundwork for the modern study of neurology.

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