Jacqueline Doyle


They've written their words all over our bodies.

The neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot called them a "pandemonium of infirmities" as he endeavored to describe and categorize the clinical symptoms of his female patients at La Salpêtrière mental hospital in Paris.

Nineteenth-century doctors labeled them "lunatics" when consigning them to workhouses and asylums, a term both colorful and imprecise. Late nineteenth-century doctors like Charcot distinguished between "hysteria" and "dementia praecox," prescribing freezing baths, "ovary compressors," chloroform, ether, and other sedatives. Doctors in the mid-twentieth century diagnosed "chronic schizophrenia" in any and all patients exhibiting psychotic symptoms, prescribing barbiturates, insulin coma therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, lobotomies. Today, doctors label the same patient with multiple "co-morbidities" that feature overlapping symptoms difficult to untangle: bipolar disorder I and II, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, schizoaffective disorder, borderline personality disorder. Diagnoses change over time or conflict, with little consensus among doctors beyond the necessity of controlling symptoms with psychiatric medications, many with debilitating side effects. 

Disorders once attributed to possession by the devil. Then to a wandering uterus, women's reproductive cycles, the phases of the moon. Now attributed to chemical imbalance, genetic inheritance. Unruly. Unmanageable. 

Disorderly bodies requiring classification, naming, control.

Doctors studying hysteria under the supervision of Charcot at Salpêtrière were fascinated to discover unusual cutaneous sensitivity in their hysterical patients. "If we lightly trace a name or a figure on the shoulders, chest, arms, or thighs of our patient," one doctor wrote, "we see, almost instantly [sic] a bright red line appear. Two minutes later, the letter or the inscription appears in the form of a pale pink line ( . . . ) We have on numerous occasions obtained inscriptions that are distinct enough to read from a distance of twenty meters." Some patients retained marks made by the rubber stylus for several months. 

The doctors wrote the name of the institution on the patients' bodies: "Salpêtrière." They wrote "Satan" and "démoniaque." They wrote diagnoses on the patients' bodies: "démence precoce." They wrote their own names on the patients' bodies.

In one haunting photograph taken at Salpêtrière, a slender young woman sits with her back to the camera, visible from the waist up. Her hair is arranged in a French twist, a few curls escaping. Her head is slightly tilted. She wears earrings. Her white peasant blouse is lowered to her waist to show the date emblazoned in raised four-inch letters on her back: 28 Juin 1888. The model is not identified. Is she alone with the photographer, or do the male doctors who have inscribed her body still cluster around her, avid gleams in their eyes? Her arms hug her torso. Are her breasts bare? The viewer can only imagine the expression on her face.




Source: Asti Hustvedt, Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011)