Hysteria in the Male: Images of Masculinity in Late Nineteenth-Century France

Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM
Harding Room (Marriott Wardman Park)
Daniela S. Barberis, Shimer College
Beginning in the 1870s, French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot dedicated himself to the study of hysteria, among other neurological complaints. He developed a highly detailed clinical description of the ailment and a careful differential diagnosis. His publications on the subject propounded a neurological model of the disease and prompted a boom on this topic in the medical literature. Initially, Charcot’s work was focused on female patients, which composed the majority of his practice at the Salpêtrière hospital (a hospital for women only at the time). In 1882, at Charcot’s instigation, a new special ward opened at the Salpêtrière, a Service des hommes, a 20-bed ward specifically reserved for men suffering from nervous disorders. Charcot’s first writings on male hysteria date from this period. He went on to publish case histories of more than 60 male hysterics in the 1880s. Charcot dedicated his early work on male hysteria to establishing the existence of this ailment in men and opposing the existing stereotype of the male hysteric as necessarily effeminate. He called attention to the “masculine” characteristics of his patients at the beginning of his lectures, pointing to their well-developed musculatures and their many offspring. He took pains to point out that the grande hystérie (the most complete symptomatic manifestation of hysteria, including a multi-phase attack) was to be found in the male, and that men presented all the characteristic stigmata (permanent symptoms) of the disease. However, most cases of male hysteria were cases of “traumatic hysteria,” mostly monosymptomatic, with extremely persistent symptoms. This paper will explore the comparative differences between male and female hysteria in the work of Charcot and his students, known as the Salpêtrière school. This prevalent model will allow us to explore gender constructs and, especially, concepts of masculinity in late 19th century France.
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