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Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris [Paperback]

Asti Hustvedt
2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Paperback, 23 May 2011 --  

Book Description

23 May 2011
Hysteria as a disease no longer exists, but in the nineteenth century hysteria was thought to affect half of all women in one of its myriad forms. In 1862 the famous and infamous Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, under the reign of renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, became the focal point for study of the mysterious illness. Physicians could find no cause, which meant a cure was not possible, but Charcot concentrated on treating the symptoms; with hypnosis, gongs, tuning forks, piercing and the evocation of demons and saints. Charcot's studies at the hospital were controversial, and brought him into conflict with the church as well as his colleagues. But despite this, Charcot was known as hysteria's ultimate authority and his experiments became both a fascinating and a fashionable spectacle. The women were photographed, sculpted, painted and sketched, and demonstrations attracted eager crowds of medical students, physicians, writers, artists and socialites. Medical Muses tells the stories of Blanche, Augustine and Genevieve, young women who found themselves in Charcot's ward as medical celebrities. But who were they? What were they suffering from? And what role did they play in their own curious celebrity? The stories of these women, and in fact, of all of the women institutionalised for hysteria in the Salpetriere, have never been fully told. Theirs is a strange tale of science and ideology, medicine and the occult, of hypnotism, sadism, love and theatre. Combing hospital records, municipal archives, memoirs and letters, Asti Hustvedt uncovers fascinating new material and sheds new light on a crucial moment in psychiatric history.

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Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris + Hysteria: The disturbing history + The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980
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Product details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; Export/Airside ed edition (23 May 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781408815120
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408815120
  • ASIN: 1408815125
  • Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 13.4 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,527,269 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


Fascinating and beautifully written (Guardian)

Fascinating ... gives us a disturbing insight into the extent to which doctors, patients and diseases, both then and now, are products of their time (Daisy Goodwin, Sunday Times)

Thoughtful and engrossing (Miranda Seymour, Daily Telegraph)

The thoroughly researched, very readable material brings to life their strange and remarkable stories, told in meticulous detail, as well as the brilliance and brutality of the great physician (Independent)

Consistently enthralling (Kathryn Harrison, New York Times)

Fascinating ... This account of psychiatry in its infancy is unforgettable (Lesley McDowell Independent on Sunday)

Asti Hustvedt has tapped into a deeply fascinating seam of medical history here ... Her descriptions of patients, and of Jean-Martin Charcot, the doctor who treated them, are peerless (William Leith Scotsman) --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

Book Description

A groundbreaking new book about the nineteenth century obsession with hysteria, focussing on the renowned Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I very rarely write reviews on Amazon, but having seen the misleading and rather reactionary comments that have been made by other reviewers, I felt I had to set things straight.

My husband has been an M.E. sufferer for over ten years, so I am no stranger to the frustrations others are referring to. However, it is totally ludicrous to review an entire book based on a few passing references in the first pages, particularly if you haven't read the rest of the book. I strongly suspect that this is the case for most of these reviewers here. Please don't let the other reviews blind you to a fantastic piece of writing on a very compelling topic. This book isn't even about M.E.

Hustvedt offers the most colourful, delightful and compelling account of the stories surrounding three women diagnosed with hysteria in late 19th century Paris, women who because of their diagnosis became world famous. Equally fascinating is the account of the hospital where these women lived, their dealings with the doctors and photographers who dealt with them on a daily basis, and the incredible Professor Charcot. Seriously, don't miss out on delving into this incredible history. The final chapter contextualises this history and discusses why it is relevant today. Absolutely fascinating.

I began reading this book yesterday and found it utterly gripping. I read it for three hours straight while my son was at his childminder, had to put it down reluctantly when the time was up, but still thought about it all day. The writing is fabulous, very very accessible, entertaining, concise, thought provoking. I was particularly drawn into the account of Charcot, (I keep imagining him sharing his dinner table with a monkey!
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just in case you get confused by th other reviews 26 July 2011
By Anne
Format:Kindle Edition
This is a history book, looking at a clinic and doctor in Paris over 100 years ago. The other reviews refer to a short comment in an epilogue suggested by the publisher - this is not, nor is it intended to be, a book about specific illnesses.

Again, it's a history book - fascinating and well-written.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars 10 July 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Doctors and Patients in 19th century Paris 4 Feb 2013
This book has aroused some antagonism, occasioned by its supposed denial of the reality of ME/CFS. I came at the book from a different angle, an interest in the history and sociology of medicine. I found it a fantastic read. The photographs and illustrations illuminate a fascinating study.
In late 19th century Paris the Sal Petriere was a massive hospital, almost a small town. Working there were doctors who founded the specialty of neurology. Their names are still remembered - Duchenne [muscular dystrophy], Babinski [reflex]etc. Not all their theories have stood the test of time. Asti Hustvedt tells the story of the rise and fall of one diagnosis - "hysteria", which once accounted for 20% of admissions to the facility.
The book is organised round the cases of three women. She recounts what is known of them prior to hospitalisation - poverty, abandonment ,abuse. In the hospital their lives were transformed - their symptoms , described in detail here, exciting the interest of the most eminent doctors of the day, led by Jean-Martin Charcot. She draws on detailed medical records, which included photographs, just coming into use in medicine and surgery. She elaborates the theories expounded and the treatments proposed. She shows how personal feelings impacted on doctor-patient boundaries and relationships. The Parisian neurologists took their ideas into the political debates that followed 1870 and the fall of the Empire. They opposed their rationalism to religious mysticism. The self-denying girls of the middle ages, canonised by the Catholic Church, were not divinely-inspired, they maintained, but hysterics. Likewise the contemporary visionary, Bernadette of Lourdes.
But the diagnosis never went unchallenged.Treatments were not especially successful either.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 20 April 2013
By Sarah
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Interesting depiction of hysteria, with thoughtful links to the modern-day versions. Recommended for anyone interested in the history of medicine. Thought-provoking.
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Both sets of reviewers are wrong 16 Mar 2013
I read this book cover to cover and I don't know what the people moaning about CFS and ME are talking about. They were not the subject of the book, and very briefly referenced at the very end.

As for the actual subject, 19th century hysterics, some of the stories were interesting, some I had to skip because of repetitive details. The author clearly spent the time doing the research, but needed some serious editing or co authoring.
The second of the three hysterics she discusses are far more interesting than the first, and I thought what eventually became of them was as interesting as their hysterical history.

At times a struggle to get through but definitely had some intriguing bits worth reading.
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