Male Hysteria

I found this really interesting piece of information in Jason Daniel Tougaw’s Strange Cases: The Medical Case History and the British Novel.

Any scholar of the nineteenth century will tell you that ‘hysteria’ was very much a gendered word, considered to be almost exclusively a female medical condition. There were a ton of medical debates surrounding hysteria at the time (What causes it? Rich food, exhaustion, exciting novels, tight corset lacing, etc. How do we treat it? Bed rest, hysterectomy, bland food, marriage, travel, etc.).

What fewer people realize is that hysteria was once considered to be a largely male disease, grouped under the term ‘hypochondria’. Tougaw writes,

“Throughout most of the eighteenth century the term hypochondriasis as used by Mandeville, Cheyne, Hill, and Whyrt [writers of medical texts], referred to male hysteria. The century produced some famous hypochondriacs who wrote and published accounts of their disorders, including Cheyne himself, Samuel Johnson, and James Boswell. During the nineteenth century, when Reid and Trotter were writing, it became more and more associated with somaticization – bodily disorders whose origins lay in some mental disturbance – but hypochondriasis retained associations with hysteria and melancholy throughout the nineteenth century.

“The hypochondriac suffers from a diseased consciousness, manifesting itself in corporeal outbursts. In the early nineteenth century, though, a disease of the mind is generally linked to conditions of the body – disease, indolence, venery – and so constitutes a pathology as real as cancer, consumption, or smallpox” (104).

I love looking back on the history and progression of medical diagnosis and terminology. Considering what a loaded term ‘hysteria’ still is today, it’s really interesting to see the gender flip.

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