Twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucalt described hysteria as “the most real and most deceptive of diseases” (Foucault, 148). Patients diagnosed with hysteria suffered from a variety of mental and physical symptoms that could not be explained through any other medical diagnosis. Ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that the disease occurred when women did not have children. He argued that when the womb remained barren long after women go through puberty, it became “distressed and sorely disturbed, and straying about the body and cutting off the passages of the breath, it impedes respiration and brings the sufferer into the extremist anguish and provokes all manner of diseases besides” (In Dora’s Case, 3). Only marriage and pregnancy could stop this “wandering womb” (Furst, 23). This belief defined hysteria, and the word itself comes from this explanation. “Hysteria” is derived from the Greek word hystera, which means womb (Furst, 23). Most importantly, this definition of hysteria linked the disease solely to women, and it became one of the most common diagnoses for women.
Doctors in the seventeenth century began to question the uterine explanation of hysteria, however, the disease was still seen as a purely female problem. They believed that spirits could traverse through empty space in the body and attack the weakest of the organs. Many believed that these spirits were demonic and that they were preying on sinful people. Women were more susceptible because their brains and bodies were weaker; leaders in medicine and religion saw them as defective men (Bernheimer, 4). Women were also perceived to be more passive, which allowed the spirits to make them hysterical (Kahane, 9). Exorcisms were commonly prescribed to treat hysterical women.
In the Victorian period, doctors attributed hysteria to the dangerous behaviors of intellectual women. Women were warned that “education would shrivel up women’s reproductive organs; thinking robbed the ovaries of energy” (Kahane, 4). Hysteria was therefore the inevitable consequence of women trying to remove themselves from their tradition places in society. Others, however, believed that it was a response to “stifling social demands and expectations aptly expressed in paralysis, deafness, muteness, and a sense of being strangled” (Hustvedt, 4). This was the leading theory on hysteria when Jean-Martin Charcot began his work in Paris.
One aspect of hysteria remained constant over the centuries: it was indefinable. Hysteria was “at once a cluster of behaviors and a myth, an illness and a verbal construction” (Evans, 5). A nineteenth century author of a medical dictionary said about defining hysteria:
Without going so far as to compare our situation to that of Dante’s hopelessness at not being able to describe the horrors of the ninth circle of hell, we can say, without humility or coquetry, that it is the article in this dictionary that is the most difficult to write clearly and concisely (Hustvedt, 20).
The problem was that hysteria had become a catchall diagnosis. Symptoms ranged from limps, stutters, and asthma to paralysis, seizures, and catatonic states. When doctors could not find a medical explanation for symptoms, they often just diagnosed it as hysteria and sent the patient to a mental hospital.
Although hysteria was a common diagnosis across Europe and the United States, it was especially prominent in France. Some specialists jokingly referred to Paris as the “hysteria capital” of Europe (Evans, 9). This was largely due to the Salpetriere Hospital. The Parisian hospital was home to the mentally disabled, as well as a prison for prostitutes and the criminally insane. By the nineteenth century, Salpetriere had become “a warehouse for female outcasts: women who were mad, violent, crippled, chronically ill, mentally retarded, unmarried, and pregnant” (Hustvedt, 11). But when neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot took over as director, the hospital soon became the premier psychiatric learning hospital, specializing in hysteria.