Friday, 3 December 2010


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia.

Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, made exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a medical disorder. Its diagnosis and treatment were routine for many hundreds of years in Western Europe. Hysteria was widely discussed in the medical literature of the Victorian era. Women considered to be suffering from it exhibited a wide array of symptoms including faintness, nervousness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and "a tendency to cause trouble".
Since ancient times women considered to be suffering from hysteria would sometimes undergo "pelvic massage" — manual stimulation of the genitals by the doctor until the patient experienced "hysterical paroxysm" (orgasm).

Water massages as a treatment for hysteria c. 1860.

The history of the notion of hysteria can be traced to ancient times; in ancient Greece it was described in the gynaecological treatises of the Hippocratic corpus, which date from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE. Plato's dialogue Timaeus tells of the uterus wandering throughout a woman’s body, strangling the victim as it reaches the chest and causing disease. This theory is the source of the name, which stems from the Greek cognate of uterus, hysteria (ὑστέρα).

It was thought to be caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women: hysteria was noted quite often in virgins, nuns, widows and, occasionally, married women. The prescription in medieval and renaissance medicine was intercourse if married, marriage if single, or vaginal massage (pelvic massage) by a midwife as a last recourse.

Advertisement from 1910.

A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. One physician catalogued 75 pages of possible symptoms of hysteria and called the list incomplete; almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be both more susceptible to nervous disorders and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. In America, such disorders in women reaffirmed that the United States was on par with Europe; one American physician expressed pleasure that the country was ”catching up” to Europe in the prevalence of hysteria.

Rachel P. Maines has observed that such cases were quite profitable for physicians, since the patients were at no risk of death, but needed constant treatment. The only problem was that physicians did not enjoy the tedious task of vaginal massage (generally referred to as 'pelvic massage'): The technique was difficult for a physician to master and could take hours to achieve "hysterical paroxysm." Referral to midwives, which had been common practice, meant a loss of business for the physician.

A 1918 Sears, Roebuck and Co. ad with several models of vibrators.

A solution was the invention of massage devices, which shortened treatment from hours to minutes, removing the need for midwives and increasing a physician’s treatment capacity. Already at the turn of the century, hydrotherapy devices were available at Bath, and by the mid-19th century, they were popular at many high-profile bathing resorts across Europe and in America. By 1870, a clockwork-driven vibrator was available for physicians. In 1873, the first electromechanical vibrator was used at an asylum in France for the treatment of hysteria.

While physicians of the period acknowledged that the disorder stemmed from sexual dissatisfaction, they seemed unaware of or unwilling to admit the sexual purposes of the devices used to treat it. In fact, the introduction of the speculum was far more controversial than that of the vibrator.

By the turn of the century, the spread of home electricity brought the vibrator to the consumer market. The appeal of cheaper treatment in the privacy of one’s own home understandably made the vibrator a popular early home appliance. In fact, the electric home vibrator was on the market before many other home appliance ’essentials’: nine years before the electric vacuum cleaner and 10 years before the electric iron. A page from a Sears catalog of home electrical appliances from 1918 includes a portable vibrator with attachments, billed as ”Very useful and satisfactory for home service.”
Other cures for female hysteria included bed rest, bland food, seclusion, refraining from mentally taxing tasks (for example, reading) and sensory deprivation.

Over the course of the early 20th century, the number of diagnoses of female hysteria sharply declined, and today it is no longer a recognized illness. Many reasons are behind its decline: many medical authors claim that the decline is due to laypeople gaining a greater understanding of the psychology behind conversion disorders such as hysteria, and it therefore no longer gets the desired response from society.

Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for telling me about the uterus/hysteria connection.

I shall be posting this on Frequently Felt.

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