What makes women 'hysterical'?: learned medicine, culture, and women's bodies in early modern England


Department of History & Philosophy of Medicine, University of Kansas Medical Center, 3901 Rainbow Blvd., Kansas City, Kansas 66160-7311, USA
Tel. 913-5887041, Fax. 913-5887060


Until late in the 17th century, most learned European physicians who treated women for "hysteria" - a common diagnosis for a variety of somatic complaints - assumed their symptoms arose from the effects of disordered and/or diseased humors that had collected in their uteri. However, in 1667, Thomas Willis, MD, then an influential London physician and Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford, published a text on nervous disease that argued that hysteria was primarily a disease of the "brain and nerves". Soon thereafter, Nathaniel Highmore, MD, a prominent disciple of William Harvey and circulation theory, published an attack of Willis's characterization of hysteria as a nervous disease. Willis then countered with a printed rebuttal.

This paper reviews their debate in the context of a broader 17th century concern about the relative importance of fluids and solids in normal and pathological operations of women's and men's bodies. Utilizing primary sources and illustrations from early modern anatomical texts and paintings, the author explores the paradox that while Willis's formulation of women's bodies as "neurocentric" sought to overturn long-standing medical assumptions that characterized non-reproducing women as dangerous, unstable and demented, his investigative methods relied on emerging assumptions about gender that promoted dominance and subordination as ideal relations between the (solid) brain and (fluid) body, men and women, and humans and the non-human world.


Panel 8B   (Shock)
Friday, 17 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