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The Literature of Prescription

The Woman Question

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Black and white photograph of an older man, Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, with white hair and a beard, dressed in a suit.


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Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, expert on
nervous diseases, ca. 1900

Charlotte consulted nervous diseases specialist Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell for treatment during her unhappy marriage.
As one of many medical and scientific experts who debated “the woman question,” he defended the notion of significant differences between the sexes and argued that an epidemic of neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, was rife among women who attempted to exceed their natural limits.

 

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

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“The man who does not know sick women does not know women”

               Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Patient 1887

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Excerpt from Charlotte's letter to
Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, requesting treatment and describing her family history, 1887

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Color photograph of the first page of a letter from Charlotte Perkins to Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.
Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

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Color photograph of the book, Wear and Tear: Hints for the Overworked, by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell.


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Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, Wear and Tear: Hints for the Overworked, 1871

The disease reflected late nineteenth-century ideas about female weakness, and was used to justify women’s exclusion from schooling, intellectual pursuits, and public life. In one of his classic texts, Mitchell explained how young women could be permanently damaged by over-education. He advocated a cure of complete bed rest and isolation.

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

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Dr. S. Weir Mitchell (front, left) at the Infirmary for Nervous Diseases, Philadelphia, 1902

After a month of treatment, Charlotte was sent home to continue the regimen. Far from getting better, she became increasingly distressed and began to fear that the method was bad for her health. She decided to end the rest cure and her marriage.

 

spacer Black and white photograph of Dr. S. Weir Mitchell examining a male patient while a group of men and women look on.

Courtesy National Library of Medicine

Digital Documents
spacer American Nervousness

Excerpts from
American Nervousness,

George M. Beard, 1881

Courtesy National Library
of Medicine

Wear and Tear

Excerpts from Wear
and Tear, or Hints
for the Overworked,

S. Weir Mitchell, 1871

Courtesy National Library
of Medicine

Fat and Blood

Excerpts from Fat and Blood: And How to Make Them,
S. Weir Mitchell, 1877

Courtesy National Library
of Medicine

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