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Shattered Nerves


This week we will deal with the first of two categories of mental disorder that were strongly influenced by cultural factors, though in very different ways. We will explore neurasthenia in some depth, considering its rise to prominence at the close of the 19th century, largely as a disorder understood to afflict the well-to-do, sensitive and educated. Compare too as you read for this week's topic, with our previous exploration of hysteria. Next week we will contrast this with the rise of degeneracy theory and its impact on psychiatric practice which also emerged in the second half of the 19th century but which was largely – though not exclusively – associated with the poor and social sub-strata. I will direct you to some primary source material on the treatment of neurasthenic patients, as well as some patient narratives, including the Yellow Wallpaper. We will also consider the different explanations put forward to explain the onset of neurasthenia in terms of gender.

If you are feeling ambitious, this is also the moment to consider the role of labelling psychiatric disorders more broadly, and their time bound and culture bound features. Melanchola and depression is an interesting example, or the emergence of anorexia nervosa after 1874, or newer diagnoses, such as ADHD. I will invite you to undertake your own research into a condition of your choice.

Have a look too at Daniel Hack Tuke's Dictionary of Psychological Medicine published in 1892. You might also want to consult the digitised casesbooks at the Wellcome Library to explore the diagnosis of specific disorders and explanations for patients' vulnerability to these conditions.

Patient in normal and cataleptic states, Albert Pitres (1891)
  1. Why was the late 19th century a heyday for neurasthenia?
  2. Why did neurasthenia apparently take on different forms in the US and UK?
  3. Was neurasthenia a gendered disorder?
  4. Are neurasthenia and hysteria as much cultural as medical categories?
Please ALL read the short essay, **Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper. There are numerous editions of this: the essay reprinted in Dale M. Bauer (ed.), The Yellow Wallpaper (Boston: Bedford Books, 1998). available Talis Aspire

There is also a huge literature on Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper, around PS.1744.156 in the library. Julie Bates Dock, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and the History of its Publication and Reception (Pennsylvania University Press, 1998) is useful as are the essays in Bauer (ed.).

Have a look too at my short article in The Conversation on The Yellow Wallpaper.

** David G. Schuster, ‘Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weir Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870-1914’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 79 (2005), 695-722. e-journal
** Eric Michael Caplan, 'Trains, Brains, and Sprains: Railway Spine and the Origins of Psychoneuroses', Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 69 (1995), 387-419. e-journal
** Thomas Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Cornell University Press, 1991).
** Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter (eds), Cultures of Neurasthenia: From Beard to the First World War (Amsterdam and Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 2001), esp chapters by Tom Lutz, Mathew Thomson and Michael Neve). e-book
** Barbara Sicherman, ‘The Uses of a Diagnosis: Doctors, Patients, and Neurasthenia’, Journal of the History of Medicine, 32 (1977), 33-54. Chapter scanned (course extracts HI383) and Talis Aspire

** Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture (Columbia University Press, 1997). Multiple copies in library


Shorter, A History of Psychiatry, ch. 4 ‘Nerves’, pp. 113-44. e-book

Corridor in High Royds, Ilkley, Yorkshire, Paul Digby

** Janet Oppenheim, “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), esp. ch. 6 ‘Neurotic Women’. Chapter scanned (course extracts HI383) and Talis Aspire


* Mark S. Micale and Paul Lerner (eds), Traumatic Pasts: History, Psychiatry, and Trauma in the Modern Age, 1870-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 2001) (includes useful essays on trauma, hysteria and nerves). e-book


* Laura Salisbury and Andrew Shail (eds), Neurology and Modernity: A Cultural History of Nervous Systems, 1800-1950 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). e-book


Michael Cowan, Cult of the Will: Nervousness and German Modernity (Pennsylvania University Press, 2008).


Åsa Jansson, 'Mood Disorders and the Brain: Depression, Melancholia, and the Historiography of Psychiatry', Medical History, 55 (2011), pp. 393-9 e-journal


Stanley W. Jackson, Melancholia and Depression from Hippocratic Times to Modern Times (Yale University Press, 1986).


Edward Shorter, How Everyone became Depressed : The Rise and Fall of the Nervous Breakdown (Oxford University Press, 2013).


Edward Shorter, From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness (New York: Free Press, 1993).


German Berrios and Roy Porter (eds), A History of Clinical Psychiatry (London: Athlone, 1995), chs 17, 19 and 20. Multiple copies in library


Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Fasting girls: The Emergence of Anorexia Nervosa as a Modern Disease (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).

Matthew Smith, Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD (London: Reaktion , 2012). e-book