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The Literature of Prescription
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Higher Education
Class 4: The Experts


Introduction: In 1869, George Miller Beard achieved early renown in the medical profession by naming “neurasthenia.” In 1881, he published American Nervousness: Its Causes and Consequences, a book that informed Americans about neurasthenia and called it the disease of its era. The book's popularity meant that many Americans relied on it for key information—symptoms and their causes. The neurologist S. Weir Mitchell came to make women’s nervousness his specialty. He and Beard were somatists who with their professional colleagues shared the belief that mental disorders were at base physical disorders. Dr. Mitchell established the “rest cure” for women, involving bed rest, repeated feeding, massage, and no activity of any kind, including reading or letter-writing. It became influential in the United States and Britain. Men, by contrast were offered the “camp cure,” a long, vigorous vacation in a natural setting where they would hunt and fish and live out-of-doors. Mitchell came, in time, to recommend that women who were strong enough try the “camp cure as well.”

 

Readings:

Beard, George. American Nervousness. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1881, Introduction, Chaps. 1 and 3.

Mitchell, S. Weir. Doctor and Patient. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott Company, 1888[c. 1887]. Reprint, New
        York: Arno Press, 1972, “Introductory,” “Pain and Its Consequences,” “Nervousness and Its
        Influence on Character.”

———. Fat and Blood. 8th ed. edited by John K. Mitchell, M.D. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1911,
        “On the Selection of Cases for Treatment,” “Seclusion,” “Rest.”
        Free online book is made available by Project Gutenberg at
        http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/16230 (accessed 9/1/2009).

———. “Camp Cure.” In Nurses and Patient, and Camp Cure. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1877.
        First published in Lippincott's Magazine of Literature, Science and Education 14 (Aug. 1874).

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is neurasthenia? What were its symptoms? Why, according to Beard, were nineteenth- century Americans experiencing this condition to an unusual degree?
  2. What are some of the assumptions that Mitchell brings to the role of sex and gender in emotional disorders? In what ways does Mitchell see women as differing from men?
  3. What form does nervousness take among women? How might a woman guard against it or fight it? How should mothers raise their daughters?
  4. What do the divergent prescriptions of the “camp cure” for men and the “rest cure” for women suggest about Mitchell's views of the difference between the sexes and male and female experiences with mental illness?


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