“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.

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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]

*

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Recipes for “Natural Magick”

(This is our second blog entry in The Recipes Project’s virtual conversation, “What is a Recipe?” For a bit of background or to read the first article, on a 19th Century recipe manuscript from Lancaster, PA, click here.)

Magia Naturalis, or Natural Magick, written by Giambattista della Porta was first published in 1558 in Naples when the author was fifteen years old. Della Porta was an Italian scholar and playwright known for his expertise and knowledge of a wide variety of subjects, and for having contributed many advances to the fields of agriculture, optics, pharmacology, hydraulics and more.

The edition held at The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is the first English translation published in 1658, 100 years after its initial publication. It contains some of the additions added by della Porta in subsequent editions, most notably, the first published description of the convex lens and camera obscura. Though he did not invent these, his work in perfecting and describing them, and their inclusion in Natural Magick, contributed to the dissemination of this knowledge.

But, you may be asking by now, what does this have to do with recipes? A quick look at almost any page in volume reveals the answer.

 

Bread recipes from Natural Magick

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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.

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Heart’s Ease

What is a recipe?  Is it instructions from which one can prepare a meal, a snack, a dessert?  Or is it how to mix the best cocktail?  Or how to cure acne?  Or how to care for a bee sting?  What other knowledge does one need to properly take advantage of the advice in a recipe?  Recipes found in medical books are no different than ones found in food cookbooks; it’s just that the desired outcome is different than a crowd-pleasing cake.

The Historical Medical Library holds over 20 manuscript recipe (or “receipt”) books, dating from the 17th century up through the early 20th century.  The majority of our recipe books are medical in nature, but many include food, drink, and household cleaning recipes as well.  I’ve even seen recipes for ink in a couple of our 19th century books.

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