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Education: The Literature of Prescription

The Troubled Mind in Medicine and Society


Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Ph.D., is a cultural historian of the United States. She received her doctorate in American Civilization from Harvard University after graduating from Wellesley College. Since her arrival at Smith College in 1988, Dr. Horowitz held the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman chair from 2000-03, and was appointed the Sydenham Clark Parsons Professor of History and American Studies in 2003. Dr. Horowitz has written on a wide range of topics, including higher education and sexuality. Her book, Rereading Sex: Battles over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Knopf, 2002) won the 2003 Merle Curti Award for the best book in social and cultural history, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in History. Since then Dr. Horowitz has edited Attitudes toward Sex in Antebellum America (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006) and co-written with Patricia Cline Cohen and Timothy Gilfoyle, The Flash Press: Sporting Male Weeklies in 1840s New York (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Dr. Horowitz has published a preliminary inquiry into the question of women, higher education, and mental health, “The Body on the Library Floor,” in The ‘Woman Question’ and Higher Education: Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge Production in America (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2008). Her forthcoming book, Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (Oxford University Press, 2010) offers an exploration of the experience of Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the 1880s, focusing on her marriage, nervous breakdown, treatment, and the writing of “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”

Suggested Use

The Troubled Mind in Medicine and Society module bears the perspective of cultural history. That is to say, that the module examines the scientific and medical thought of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s time without claims to scientific knowledge of what ailed her or aided her recovery. The readings have been chosen with the primary goal of helping students gain a sense of how the body, mind, and mental illness in Gilman’s time were experienced and understood. This engagement with the past is intended to provide background to students and give them a basis for thinking about issues of illness and health, of body and mind, in the present.

As this module takes The Literature of Prescription exhibition as a starting point, students should begin by visiting the web site and exploring each of the six exhibition sections as well as the links to digital documents. Questions students may consider as they review this material include: How were medicine and social conventions interwoven in this time period? What are the implications of this interaction for Charlotte Perkins Gilman? What different types of literature engaged with the “woman question”? Which are most influential (scientific versus fiction, for example)? Review the poems by Gilman included in The Literature of Prescription, and comment on their meanings. Consider Gilman’s experience of the medical profession as a young woman and at the end of her life. How might we interpret her decision to take her own life?

The Troubled Mind in Medicine and Society builds on the exhibition with additional readings and discussion points. Each of the six classes in the module contains a brief overview, a list of primary or secondary sources readings, and several questions to consider in the class. The questions are only suggestions for a first step as the important questions often come after the initially planned ones are asked. Engaging students in an effort to understand and critique is an organic process that can yield the most fruitful work in the class itself. So users of this module are encouraged to allow the dynamic and spontaneous development of questions in class.


At the conclusion of the entire module, students are expected to:

  • demonstrate a basic understanding of how mental illness was viewed and treated by physicians in late nineteenth century.
  • evaluate how gender issues have shaped the understanding and development of treatments for mental illness among women in both in the past and present.
  • analyze and understand both historical ideas and contemporary scholarship about mental illness.
  • relate historical concepts and beliefs to how we understand, define, experience, and treat mental illnesses today.
  • demonstrate an ability to read and interpret primary and secondary source materials.
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