Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Written by Asti Hustvedt
Review by Jessica Brockmole

Hysteria was a very real fear up until the late 19th century, and never studied more than at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, run by famed neurologist Jean-Pierre Charcot. Hysteric patients suffered specific symptoms, like seizures, hallucinations, paralysis, and catalepsy, and were easily hypnotized. Charcot was known for using patients to dramatize public lectures. This book examines three of the women exploited in Charcot’s lectures, and Hustvedt does an admirable job of humanizing them.

The author’s background is in French literature, and it is from this perspective that she approaches the topic. Although she raises some truly fascinating questions about the influence of culture and era on disorder, she doesn’t provide the evidence to answer these. It’s a straightforward presentation of an obsolete syndrome, without connection to modern medicine. As a sketch of three hysterics within the very specific culture of 19th-century Paris, this book succeeds. But as a discussion of hysteria in a medical or a historical context, it falls short.