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Education: Higher Education

The Troubled Mind in Medicine and Society

Class 1: Mental Illness Historically Considered


The first class includes three secondary-source readings to aid in understanding mental illness in the nineteenth century, especially as experienced by women. It examines the question of nineteenth-century science and its relationship to society. Science had its uses and misuses, and when applied to women could draw on existing ideology and stereotypes only to express them back as absolute truths. Charles Rosenberg, the pre-eminent historian of medicine in the United States, offers important background for understanding nineteenth-century medical practice, especially as it considered the relation of body and mind in patients. The intellectual historian Cynthia Eagle Russett places the understanding of women in the late nineteenth century within the context of evolutionary thought. The author of this module, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, explores the controversy over women and higher education in this same period, focusing on the way that medical concerns regarding the danger of study during menstruation became a scare tactic that women seeking broader opportunity attempted to challenge.

Class Resources
  • Rosenberg, Charles. “Body and mind in nineteenth-century medicine: Some clinical origins of the neurosis construct.” In Explaining Epidemics and Other Studies in the History of Medicine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Russett, Cynthia Eagle. Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989, Chap. 4, Notes for Chap. 4.
  • Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. “The body in the library.” In The ‘Woman Question’ and Higher Education: Perspectives on Gender and Knowledge Production in America, edited by Ann Mari May. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2008.
Discussion Questions
  1. What were the traditional ways of thinking about the mind and body connection in illness? How did this change in the late nineteenth century?
  2. How did the social science of the nineteenth century play into constructions of mental illness?
  3. In what ways were medicine, social science, and notions of mental illness gendered? How was this “knowledge” employed by those seeking to restrict women’s educational opportunities?
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