IoS paperback review: Medical Muses: Hysteria in 19th Century Paris

Guinea pigs who helped psychiatry grow up

In her account of the women who were patients at the infamous Salpêtrière mental hospital in Paris during the 19th century, Asti Hustvedt uncovers a fascinating and disturbing history. Not the kind we might expect, either: the "madwoman" and the manipulative psychiatrist are tropes of 20th-century Gothic horror, exploiting the power relationship between the two for the maximum fear factor. It is the helplessness of the women that scares us most: the idea of another human with the power to lock us up, mistreat us, starve us.

What Hustvedt does in her brilliant history is show that it wasn't quite like that. The women involved here even managed to turn the tables on their doctors. Jean-Martin Charcot, a "disciple" of the famous Philippe Pinel who had broken the chains of the mad inmates of the Salpêtrière at the very beginning of the 19th century, had patients "perform" for him, as he would put them under public hypnosis. Blanche Wittman, Augustine Gleizes and Geneviève Legrand were three women, mainly from impoverished and often abusive backgrounds, who displayed signs of mania, or schizophrenia. In the infancy of the new science of psychiatry, they became human guinea pigs for the men seeking to advance their theories.

Without such women, science falters. Psychiatry has suffered a bad press in the 20th century and it's easy to forget that, in the 19th century, they really believed they could "cure" madness. This sympathetic but impartial history is one of the best of the genre.

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