Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris

Asti Hustvedt

Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris

Hysteria as a disease no longer exists, but in the nineteenth century hysteria was thought to affect half of all women in one of its myriad forms. In 1862 the famous and infamous Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, under the reign of renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, became the focal point for study of the mysterious illness. Physicians could find no cause, which meant a cure was not possible, but Charcot concentrated on treating the symptoms; with hypnosis, gongs, tuning forks, piercing and the evocation of demons and saints. Charcot's studies at the hospital were controversial, and brought him into conflict with the church as well as his colleagues. But despite this, Charcot was known as hysteria's ultimate authority and his experiments became both a fascinating and a fashionable spectacle. The women were photographed, sculpted, painted and sketched, and demonstrations attracted eager crowds of medical students, physicians, writers, artists and socialites. Medical Muses tells the stories of Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, young women who found themselves in Charcot's ward as medical celebrities. But who were they? What were they suffering from? And what role did they play in their own curious celebrity? 3.6 out of 5 based on 7 reviews
Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth Century Paris

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre History, Science & Nature, Health & Medical
Format Hardback
Pages 384
RRP £16.99
Date of Publication July 2011
ISBN 978-0747576334
Publisher Bloomsbury
 

Hysteria as a disease no longer exists, but in the nineteenth century hysteria was thought to affect half of all women in one of its myriad forms. In 1862 the famous and infamous Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, under the reign of renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, became the focal point for study of the mysterious illness. Physicians could find no cause, which meant a cure was not possible, but Charcot concentrated on treating the symptoms; with hypnosis, gongs, tuning forks, piercing and the evocation of demons and saints. Charcot's studies at the hospital were controversial, and brought him into conflict with the church as well as his colleagues. But despite this, Charcot was known as hysteria's ultimate authority and his experiments became both a fascinating and a fashionable spectacle. The women were photographed, sculpted, painted and sketched, and demonstrations attracted eager crowds of medical students, physicians, writers, artists and socialites. Medical Muses tells the stories of Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, young women who found themselves in Charcot's ward as medical celebrities. But who were they? What were they suffering from? And what role did they play in their own curious celebrity?

Acting up: is hysteria all in the mind? | Guardian (25/7/11)

Reviews

The New York Times

Kathryn Harrison

Consistently enthralling … The lure of voyeurism made hysterical patients into celebrities, muses for their doctors and for a public that regarded the “condition of being a woman” as “one that can at any moment veer out of control and is therefore in need of medical regulation.” But if Hustvedt’s meticulous analysis of Charcot’s methodology provides evidence of his exploitation of what he called his vast “reservoir of material,” it also demonstrates that patients collaborated in what was an iatrogenic condition, “forged between patient and doctor.”

17/06/2011

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The Evening Standard

Claire Harman

Asti Hustvedt has mastered this disturbing material with intelligence, seriousness and remarkable lack of sensationalism. An expert on hysteria and the fin-de-siècle, her fine study of a pivotal moment in psychiatric history acts as an oblique companion-piece to her sister Siri's memoir The Shaking Woman (about the possibly hysterical origins of her own neurological disorder).

28/07/2011

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The Independent

Arifa Akbar

The thoroughly researched, very readable material brings to life their strange and remarkable stories, told in meticulous detail, as well as the brilliance and brutality of the great physician.

05/08/2011

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The Daily Telegraph

Miranda Seymour

[A] thoughtful and engrossing book ... Hustvedt reaches a more nuanced conclusion than Charcot’s enemies.

01/08/2011

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The Guardian

Jad Adams

Fascinating ... Hustvedt had intended to produce a book about exploited women and exploiting men, but she found something more nuanced. The celebrity hysterics were indeed exploited but they also exploited the system, participating in a hospital culture that was in many ways less oppressive than the world beyond it. This turns Hustvedt's book into a study of how the diagnosis of illness can be chosen, a negotiation between doctor and patient.

15/07/2011

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The Sunday Telegraph

Melanie McGrath

Thought-provoking … The most arresting material in the book appears as an afterthought, in an epilogue suggested by Hustvedt’s publisher. Here Hustvedt explores the relevance of Charcot’s work to such 21st-century hysteria analogues as chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndromes, tangible sets of symptoms for which there are no clear biomarkers.

10/07/2011

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The Sunday Times

Daisy Goodwin

… as Hustvedt points out, the picture is more porous than a simple one of institutional misogyny. The hysterics of the Salpêtrière were by and large women who had been ignored by society — their upbringings were characterised by poverty and sexual abuse, and to be the focus of attention as one of Charcot’s famous patients brought them status they could not hope to attain in any other way ... [A] densely written but fascinating book

24/07/2011

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