The strangest book I have read in some time tells the story of three forgotten medical celebrities of late-19th-century Paris: Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve.
Every week, crowds streamed into the Salpetriere Hospital to watch them convulse, sleep, blabber, scream and lurch around the lecture halls.
All three young women were rescued from desperate lives in the darkest gutters by a charismatic neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-93), who treated their symptoms with dedication and imagination. The young Freud studied happily at Salpetriere until he returned to Vienna and focused on his penis.
“Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris,” a mesmerizing history by Asti Hustvedt, opens the ornate portals of the hospital, which in Charcot’s time had about 100 structures and 5,000 patients.
The complex first harbored female outcasts in the 17th century. Eventually, Louis XIV added a prison for prostitutes and female convicts headed for the gallows or the colonies. What opera nut has not wept as Puccini’s Manon Lescaut expires slowly, slowly on a parched plain near New Orleans!
Hustvedt describes a city within a city, with churches, workshops, laboratories, kitchens, several wards, a library, and lecture halls that served as theaters.
A special treat for visitors, and sometimes for the patient, was the application of the “ovary compressor.”
I’ll have Hustvedt describe it: “This bizarre apparatus was attached to the patient’s abdomen and worked like a vise grip with a descending knob that applied pressure to the ovary. In spite of its resemblance to something that might have been used in medieval torture, it was not unusual for hysterics to request it.”
What on earth did the thing accomplish? It seems to have stopped any mood swings a patient felt welling up in her like an angry wave. Patient Blanche was willing to wear the ovary compressor for days.
Another more whimsical device was the “sphygmograph” -- a kind of wired hat with long plumes whose tremblings would reveal the defects of the nervous system -- and perhaps a hurt heart.
I am looking for a sphygmograph on Craigslist.
The pioneering Charcot insisted his patients were sick, not mad, lazy and/or concupiscent. Hustvedt’s accounts don’t include hysterical males, but that is because the deep-seated traumas that beset Charcot’s hysterics were mostly inflicted by men.
We learn a lot about poor women as they struggled far away from Baron Haussmann’s spacious new boulevards and the breezy scenes of the Impressionists.
Patient Genevieve, a foundling, slipped into religious mania, eventually cutting off her left nipple. Augustine, similarly from a large and constantly undernourished family, was dispatched to live with a predator who raped her at age 13.
By the time 18-year-old Blanche entered Salpetriere never to leave, her father had gone insane, her mother had died along with five siblings, she had been raped by her boss and scrubbed her fingers raw.
Understandably, there were many who thought the doctor was directing a circus of crazies who performed to please him and feel special.
And perhaps to an extent they did. A hysteric with a neurological disorder was treated very differently at Salpetriere than those who were considered to be mentally ill. Poor Blanche ended up in the mad ward after chewing up the scenery too intensely and spent seven months in a bare cell. Hysterics, writes Hustvedt, usually strolled about unattended and might get day passes.
Charcot searched unsuccessfully for some physical reason for their attacks, a lesion perhaps on the spinal cords or brains of deceased patients. A remarkable observer, though, of human suffering, he did leave insightful records and photographs of a variety of disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
Hustvedt brings the story into the present with an epilogue touching on modern-day attitudes to hysteria and syndromes such as chronic fatigue. Must there always be an organic reason for extreme emotional states and disorders?
As for Salpetriere, though much reformed and rebuilt, it still exists. On Aug. 31, 1997, an ambulance bearing Princess Diana, no stranger to hysterics and mass hysteria, rushed through its gates.
“Medical Muses” is published by Norton in the U.S. and Bloomsbury in the U.K. (372 pages, $26.95, 16.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)