‘Hysteria’ and Women’s Health

Last night my wife and I watched a movie called Hysteria and we recommend it to anyone, especially women, who need a break from the mundane or usually violent movies that you see. I, in no way, mean this post to be offensive to women. It’s about an era to which the radical right would probably like to see us return. My wife and I experienced a bit of hysteria ourselves watching the movie.

In fact, my wife enjoyed it so much that today she had to research the movie and other information on the medical malady affecting women known as Hysteria. The American Psychiatric Association recognized Hysteria as a malady until 1952. Though the film takes place in Victorian times, Hysteria (although that name wasn’t used) was recorded as old as Roman times when women were cautioned about sitting too close to the inlet pipes because it caused “reactions”. So, we see that this malady has been with us since antiquity.

In 1653 Pieter van Foreest, known as the Dutch Hippocrates, published a medical compendium that included a chapter on the diseases of women. For the affliction commonly called Hysteria (literally, “womb disease”), the physician advised as follows:

When these symptoms indicate, we think it necessary to ask a midwife to assist, so that she can massage the genitalia with one finger inside, using oil of lilies, musk root, crocus, or [something] similar. And in this way the afflicted woman can be aroused to the paroxysm. This kind of stimulation with the finger is recommended by Galen and Avicenna, among others, most especially for widows, those who live chaste lives, and female religious, as Gradus [Ferrari da Gradi] proposes; it is less often recommended for very young women, public women, or married women, for whom it is a better remedy to engage in intercourse with their spouses.

“During the late 19th century, women were regarded as frail, flighty creatures, subject to strange and mysterious mental and emotional afflictions. Symptoms of this dreaded disease included sadness, anxiety, crying, anger, lack of energy, surliness, impertinence, or basically any behavior that a Victorian era husband found unpleasant or improper in his wife.” Of course, if I had to wear the layers of clothing they did in addition to the corsets, I would add “very, very grumpy” to the list. Women who experienced these symptoms were diagnosed with “female hysteria”. The recommended treatment was manual “pelvic massage”. This caused a “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasm) in the patient. The treatment was time-consuming with doctors claiming it was difficult to learn and could take as long as an hour.

OK, back to the movie. The movie takes a humorous look at Hysteria treatment, i.e., the manual genital massage of women. In the film, we see Dr. Joseph Granville hired by an older doctor to assist him in his practice. Dr. Granville treats Hysteria daily to the point that we see him wearing a wrist brace and suspect that he’s experiencing Carpel Tunnel symptoms because of his treatments.

In the movie, we see Dr. Granville inventing an electromechanical vibrator and using it on his patients with amazing results. In real life, Dr. Granville filed the first patent for an electromechanical vibrator termed Granville’s Hammer in about 1883 and used it to treat Vibratormuscular disorders. Other physicians began to use it to treat Hysteria. The drawing below shows the first type of vibrator that doctors used to treat Hysteria.

Well, unless you’ve lived in a darkened cave all your life, you know that there are many different types of vibrators on the market today and I’m not going there. I just hope that you enjoyed wandering through history looking at the causes and cures for Hysteria.

A little more info from my wife:  Sears & Roebuck sold the vibrators in their catalog in the early 1900s. I was pleasantly surprised at how sensitive doctors were to women’s feelings so early in history. I thought the vibrator was a modern invention! In the 1950s and 1960s, I never heard of vibrators. The Catholic Church would look on this as a sin.

 

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Movie, Hysteria