There was a period in not-so-long ago history when the medical fraternity attributed the condition of hysteria' to the female sex. Combining symptoms of epilepsy, mental illness, and demonic possessions, the debate of the causes and pathology of hysteria was the fashionable conversation. In this study of hysteria at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, the author details the treatment of three women, portrayed as both victims and participants in Charcot's methods, or some would say experiments.
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? The stories of these women, and in fact, of all of the women institutionalised for hysteria in the Salpetriere, have never been fully told. Theirs is a strange tale of science and ideology, medicine and the occult, of hypnotism, sadism, love and theatre. Combing hospital records, municipal archives, memoirs and letters, Asti Hustvedt uncovers fascinating new material and sheds new light on a crucial moment in psychiatric history.