Hysteria in the Georgian Era

The Effects of Melodrama - by Louis-Léopold Boilly, hysteria

The Effects of Melodrama, by Louis-Léopold Boilly, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hysteria was a catch-all term given to sufferers who were readily excited, highly nervous, or emotionally distressed. Georgian doctors claimed hysteria was brought on because of surprise created by joy, grief, fear, etc., and doctors also asserted it affected people early in life — primarily between the age of puberty and thirty-five.

Eighteenth century doctors also declared that hysteria could affect both sexes, male or females. Male hysteria, called masculina, was said to be caused by a man retaining semen and the surest cure was “excretion.” Female hysteria, called foeminina, was considered to be much more common than male hysteria. It occurred in all women but was said to occur more frequently in “women of a delicate habit.”

Delicate women were supposedly predisposed to attacks of hysteria because of an inactive or sedentary lifestyle, grief, anxiety, menstrual problems, or eating unwholesome foods. They could also suffer from one of several types of hysteria as listed below:

  • Hysteria Choloritca – caused from retardation of the menses
  • Hysteria Emphractica – caused from visceral obstruction
  • Hysteria a Menorrhagia – caused from excessive discharge during menses, bloody
  • Hysteria a Leucorrhoea – caused from excessive discharge during menses, ferous, or fluor albus
  • Hysteria Libidinosa – caused from sensual desires
  • Hysteria Stomachica – caused from diseases of the stomach

Before an attack, sufferers claimed they usually felt one or more of the following:  

  • anxiety
  • dejected spirits
  • difficulty breathing
  • heart palpitations
  • tears
  • upset stomach

Eighteenth century doctors also argued that hysteria was sometimes difficult to distinguish from hypochondria or dyspepsia. This was partly due to the fact that hysteria was believed to have a wide variety of symptoms. In fact, later, during the Victorian Era, one doctor created a 75 page list of hysteria symptoms and pronounced it incomplete.

One eighteenth century medical book described hysteria as a “rumbling of the bowels [and a] sense of a ball rolling itself in the abdomen, rising toward the stomach and gullet, and there giving a sense of strangulation.” Once this feeling of strangulation occurred, sufferers felt faint and were sometimes affected by stupor or insensibility.

Sufferers also experienced other symptoms. Fits frequently involved a person’s trunk and limbs, with the trunk turning “to and fro” and the person’s limbs flailing wildly. Laughter, crying, or screaming could accompany the fit, and, sometimes sufferers uttered incoherent statements. Some sufferers also reported violent pains in the back, clammy sweats, or coldness of the extremities.

These varied symptoms and actions were usually followed by “sleep, convulsions, copious discharge of limpid urine, [sometimes gas was passed, or a frothy saliva … discharged from the mouth].” Sufferers also usually claimed to have no memory of the incident but reported they felt sore all over or had severe head pain.

During an attack, there were several pieces of advice given to bystanders. If an attack occurred indoors, windows were to be opened to allow air to flow freely into the room. Tinctures, laxatives, or opiates might also be given. When women suffered from an attack, bystanders were also advised to loosen “the stays and all tight strings.” In addition, bystanders were to guard the patient from injury by using some sort of restraint, and to shorten the duration of the fit, they were advised to sprinkle water on the person or using common smelling salts to revive the afflicted.

Physician treatments for the condition varied. Usually, some sort of anti-hysteric, purgative, or antispasmodic was given. Sometimes bleeding or cupping was recommended. Doctors also tried to subdue the sufferers’ passions and relieve their mental anxiety. This was thought to be best achieved by focusing on the person’s bowels and digestion and resulted in sufferers being advised to eat light meals and little meat. Sufferers were also told to avoid getting cold, exercise in the open air, and strengthen their minds with healthy pursuits and “rational amusement.”

References:

  • Briggs, Laura, The Race of Hysteria: “Overcivilization” and the “Savage” Woman in Late Nineteenth-Century Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2000
  • Cullen, William, Nosology, 1800
  • Dunglison, Robley, The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine, Vol. 2, 1833
  • Good, John Mason, The Study of Medicine, 1822
  • Hooper, Robert, A New Medical Dictionary, 1817
  • Macintosh, John, etal., Principles of Pathology, and Practice of Physic, Vol. 2, 1837
  • The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Vol. 2, 1834

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