“Her Sex Points to Hysteria”: Diagnostic Narratives in a Student Notebook

– by Lindsey Grubbs, Wood Institute travel grantee*


Hysteria posed a unique challenge to the medical profession in the late nineteenth century. As clinicians increasingly relied upon advances in instrumentation and laboratory science to diagnose organic disease, hysteria remained an enigma, mimicking organic disorder without discernable cause. S. Weir Mitchell, notorious for his work with the disorder, understood that what he once called “mysteria” was a condition with “hazy boundaries” that could not responsibly be drawn.[1] But despite this acknowledgement (or perhaps because of it), he spent much of his career attempting to delineate between organic and hysterical disorders.

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in the Historical Medical Library researching for my dissertation the role of literature in the creation of new psychiatric diagnoses. Seeking evidence of how Mitchell employed narrative techniques as he disseminated his vision of hysteria, I spent most of my time, of course, with the Mitchell collection. His correspondence with other physicians, patients, and literary figures, his case notes, and his lecture notes demonstrated how deeply his diagnostic and literary interests supported one another. While taking a brief Mitchell-hiatus, however, I found a less glamorous set of materials that provided unexpected insight into the solidification of hysterical diagnoses in this period: the clinical notebooks of Charles P. Mercer, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. These writings are a fascinating window into just how the diagnostic gaze was trained in Mitchell’s Philadelphia.

Read more

Crying in the Library

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Heather Christle*



In 1906, Alvin Borgquist – a little-known graduate student at Clark University – published the world’s first in-depth psychological study of crying, and then appears to have vanished back into a quiet, private life in his native Utah.  His study is moving, strange, detached, threaded through with the racist and colonialist assumptions common to this era (and, distressingly, our own). The questionnaire he crafted to solicit data on typical crying behaviors fascinates me, forming as it does a kind of accidental poem.  Here, for instance, is Borgquist’s first question:

As a child did you ever cry till you almost lost consciousness or things seemed to change about you?  Describe a cry with utter abandon. Did it bring a sense of utter despair? Describe as fully as you can such an experience in yourself, your subjective feelings, how it grew, what caused and increased it, its physical symptoms, and all its after effects. What is wanted is a picture of a genuine and unforced fit or crisis of pure misery.[1]


Read more

Behold the Body: Capturing the Spectacle of the Anatomy Theater

– by Jessica Sara Sternbach*


The frontispieces and title pages of early anatomical texts served as teasers for many Early Modern readers, offering the primary information necessary to engage with the text. Once the spine was cracked opened, the viewer would encounter these new medical ideas for the first time, whether it be the authority of a post-Vesalian anatomist as in the Anatomia reformata by Steven Blankaart (1695), the philosophical prowess and artistic pride of William Cheselden and Gerard van der Gucht’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1740), or the sublime awe of the embryology of Nicolaas Hoboken’s Anatomia secundinae (1675). The illustrations in these books drew upon existing visual language in order to decrypt the unfamiliar medical subject matter. Mastery was needed from both the artist and the anatomist, who were trying to comprehend and clarify what it meant to be human.

Read more

Wistar’s Models: Knowledge and Skill in Anatomical Modelling in Philadelphia Around 1800

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Marieke Hendriksen*


As a historian of art and science, I am particularly interested in the exchange of knowledge and skills between visual artists and medical men in writing and practice in the 18th century. Last year, the  F.C. Wood Institute at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia awarded me a travel grant to study the collaboration between artists and anatomists in Philadelphia in the first decades of the College (est. 1787). It has long been known that anatomists and visual artists worked closely together in the production of anatomical atlases and models in early modern Europe, and sometimes were even united in the same person. An extensive corpus of literature about anatomical preparations and illustrations exists, yet little attention has been paid thus far to the development, understanding and transmission of various other techniques for depicting the body among artists and anatomists. My research fills that gap by focusing on the development and exchange of techniques like plaster casting, wax, wood, and papier-mâché modelling among artists and anatomists. The practices and resources in the early decades of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia form a fascinating case for this research project as they developed in conjunction with similar practices in Europe, yet were in a sense also geographically isolated.

Read more

Race, Genitals, and Walt Whitman in Dr. Leidy’s Lectures

– by Christopher Willoughby, Ph.D.*


Over the last five years, I have spent months conducting research at the Historical Medical Library at The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. In my dissertation, I examine the history of slavery and racial science in American medical schools before the Civil War, and my research at the College of Physicians played an essential role in completing this project. One of the central tasks that I undertook at the Historical Medical Library was an intensive study of Joseph Leidy, the Professor of Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical Department for much of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Read more