Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris

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A fascinating study of three young female hysterics who shaped our early notions of psychology.
Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve found themselves in the hysteria ward of the Salpetriere Hospital in 1870s Paris, where their care was directed by the prominent neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. They became medical celebrities: every week, eager crowds arrived at the hospital to observe their symptoms; they were photographed, sculpted, painted, and transformed into characters in novels. The remarkable story of their lives as patients in the clinic is a strange amalgam of intimate details and public exposure, science and religion, medicine and the occult, hypnotism, love, and theater.
But who were Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve? What role did they play in their own peculiar form of stardom? And what exactly were they suffering from? Hysteria—with its dramatic seizures, hallucinations, and reenactments of past traumas—may be an illness of the past, but the notions of femininity that lie behind it offer insights into disorders of the present.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

By any normal standard, Blanche Wittman had no claim to fame. She was a deeply disturbed teenager, raped by her employer, and then, suffering nightmarish seizures, discarded to crowded charity wards. At Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris in 1877, however, she fell under the scrutiny of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who recognized her symptoms as worthy of especial attention. Before long, Blanche and two other patients became objects of scientific study, herded before "experts," exhibited in public, and transformed into subjects of photographs, paintings, sculptures, and lengthy news stories. Asti Hustvedt's Medical Muses takes us inside this bizarre process and, in doing so, somehow rescues these three troubled women as human beings. One history of medicine book you will never forget.

Publishers Weekly
Before she entered Salpêtrière Hospital in 1877, Blanche Wittmann was just another damaged child from a poor neighborhood of Paris. Raped by an employer, angry and seizure-prone, the 17-year-old girl almost inevitably became a charity patient of the hospital’s mental wards. Once there, however, she came to the attention of one of France’s most famous scientists, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Acclaimed for his work in diseases of the nervous system (he was the first physician to recognize that ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was a disease of motor neurons), Charcot had developed a keen interest in the kind of neurotic fits exhibited by the teenage Blanche. Under his care and—critics would claim—his manipulation, she became not just a patient but a star performer known as “the queen of hysterics.” As Hustvedt details in this compassionate history, the doctor not only studied patients like Blanche, he turned them into public exhibits. Charcot and his colleagues, experimenting with treatment by hypnosis, often held theatrical demonstrations of their power over these troubled women: “Once hypnotized, Blanche became a smoothly running woman-machine....” These performances have led earlier writers to obsess over the circus-tent nature of the proceedings and the male arrogance of the research. And Hustvedt does explore those issues as well as Charcot’s eventual fall from professional grace. But her real fascination is in turning these so-called machines into real women, and she tells her story by deliberately focusing on three very dissimilar patients: the celebrated and obedient Blanche; a pretty and incurably willful Augustine; and a religion-crazed, demon-obsessed teenager called Geneviève. They are also completely alike in being poor, powerless, desperate. Their lives provide a near shocking contrast to the privileged existence of Charcot, married into wealth, residing in an ornate mansion on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. That imbalance is so strong (and wrong) that even today it overshadows his research into the elusive nature of neurotic behaviors. Hustvedt comes from a literary family; her sister is novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt, her brother-in-law Paul Auster. And she has worked as both an editor and translator. But this is her first time out as a book author, and it’s not surprising to find signs of inexperience in the work. She struggles with doing justice to the complex nature of Charcot’s work; she visibly gropes for a meaningful resolution to her tale. Still, she does a lovely, sympathetic job of illuminating the lost lives of the famous hysterics, reminding us that the story of science, far from being purely clinical, is ever the most human of stories. 40 illus. (May) Reviewed by Deborah Blum. Deborah Blum is author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.
Kirkus Reviews

A compelling analysis of hysteria told through the stories of three young women afflicted with the illness.

In the late 1800s,the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris was notorious for its controversial director, neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, and for its large population of women diagnosed as hysterics. The illness was mysterious, as Charcot's careful clinical methods failed to reveal a biological source of symptoms, and its treatment equally opaque; hypnosis, ether and metallotherapy are a few examples of Charcot's experimental methods. Three of the hysterics, Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, all young women when they were admitted, became celebrities under Charcot's care. Their dramatic physical transformations when suffering a hysterical attack, and Charcot's ability todirect their minds and bodies while they were hypnotized,fascinatedthe public that clamored to see the spectacle for themselves. Hustvedt (A Society without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China, 2001, etc.) delves into the stories of these three women, exploring how their experiences inform modern psychology and medicine, as well as revealing the true storiesbehind their treatment and exposure.The author questions whether these women weretruly afflicted, or were they playing a role? Was Charcot truly reaching medical breakthroughs with his analysis, or was he manipulating his clients in order to gain prestige? Citing ample historical evidence, Hustvedt contends that the women were legitimately affected by chronicphysical symptoms that fell into the grey area between psychosomatic and somatic disorder. In some ways, she suggests, it's possible that the manner in which women were treated in 19th-century Frenchsociety may have been manifested through these symptoms. Many of the women at the hospital were unmarried, poor, fatherless or abused, and strange myths about femininity abounded. Charcot was a pioneer for treating hysteria as a legitimate medical affliction, but after his death, his reputation suffered. However, he—and the stories of his three star patients—raise important questions about the mind-body paradigm, especially in women,a tension that the author suggests remains misunderstood in modern medicine.

Insightful, provocative medical history.

Kathryn Harrison
…consistently enthralling…
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393025606
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/23/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Asti Hustvedt received her PhD in French literature from New York University. She has worked as an editor and translator, and lives in New York City with her family.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 21, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Hustvedt Explores Medical Muses and Exploitation It comes as no

    Hustvedt Explores Medical Muses and Exploitation

    It comes as no surprise that photography and entertainment have been used as tools to exploit the oppressed, but what happens when medical professionals are the ones behind it? Asti Hustvedt explores this idea in Medical Muses.

    In the beginning, Hustvedt alludes to an Andre Brouillet painting of a doctor lecturing a group of men about hysteria with a female model. This model is a performing hysteric who works for Dr. Charcot and she is just one of the several women exploited for this purpose. Blanche Wittmann was considered the "queen of hysterics" at the age of 18. Her traumatic childhood left her imprisoned in a hospital for those deemed insane or untreatable. The ability to perform gave Blanche a dose of freedom in a time when "hysteria has become a fascinating and fashionable spectactle."

    Hustvedt demonstrates excellent research and intriguing depictions of those involved. The author's rich backgrouns as a writer, editor, and traslator has perfectly suited her to write this piece, which is in no way clinical or dry. "Medical Muses" is not only nuanced and insightful, but it also delves into the role of photography in exploiting the oppressed. By the end of the book, she arrives at an intriguing concept: not only were these "muses" exploited by others, but they were also exploiting the system in their own right! Ultimately, these women found that the hospital they were living in was less oppressive than the world waiting for them outside - what a scary thought!

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  • Posted June 18, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Great find and interesting read

    Highly Recommended - you must check it out!!

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