Ilma: Meanings of hysteria and the beginnings of Hungarian psychiatry


Central European University, Budapest, Hungary


Ilma Szekulics was an intelligent middle-class woman raised in a convent who rebelled against the confines imposed on her by her sex, her family and society, and who employed deviant forms of social behaviour to survive. A petty thief, a forger, and a cross-dresser, she became the number one patient of top psychiatrists in Austro-Hungary in the 1880s, diagnosed as suffering from hystero-epilepsy and contrary sexual feelings. Ilma's well-documented case (her autobiographical writings, studies by her Hungarian doctors, a book by Krafft-Ebing, and articles in the daily press) allows us to reconsider the doctor-patient relationship by emphasising the patient's point of view together with the doctors' hidden designs, and by showing to what extent hypnosis was the result of an exchange between the patient and the experimenter.

Ilma's story helps us understand and fit the figure of the hysterical woman both into the context of late-nineteenth-century psychiatric knowledge, and into general thinking on female nature and body, sexuality, lesbianism, and cross-dressing. I show how medical knowledge, its institutional framework and practice embodied and reinforced the power relations between man and woman, doctor and patient. At the same time, an awareness of social constraints and possibilities, if cleverly exploited, could open up some space for manoeuvring and negotiations. Ilma's case demonstrates how social constraints and private interests combine into various forms of self-fashioning.


Panel 6C   (Biopolitics)
Thursday, 16 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999