History of Medicine
Class 5: The Patients
Introduction: William James, the great philosopher and psychologist (he gave us Pragmatism, as well as The Will to Believe), understood himself as a life-long sufferer from neurasthenia. He never wrote directly about his own serious breakdown when he was a young man. In 1902, however, in “The Sick Soul,” he gave voice to “the depressed and melancholy” souls who lived “in darkness and apprehension,” and had, in contrast to the “healthy-minded,” a deeper awareness of the nature of reality. Scholars today believe that James's supposed translation from the French of an account of an episode of “panic fear” near the end of his essay was actually a description of his own personal experience as a youth. Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her short story should now need no introduction after students’ having viewed The Literature for Prescription before the class.
James, William. “The Sick Soul.” In The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Random House, 1902,
Lectures VI and VII.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wall-Paper. Boston: Small & Maynard, 1899. First published in New
England Magazine 5 (Jan. 1892).
- According to James, what did some sick souls feel? What kinds of truths were embedded in their experiences?
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman describes a woman’s experience as she sunk deeper and deeper and ultimately became insane. What makes her character’s experience with mental illness a distinctly female one in Gilman's era?
- Both James and Gilman have something important to say to those in their day who attempted to confront and “treat” their distress. What is it?