Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Silas Weir Mitchell, Neurologist and Novelist

By Bess Brander, 7-16-14

Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914) was a noted 19th century neurologist.  He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1850, went on to spend a year in Europe studying under Claude Bernard and Charles Philippe Robin; and then returned to the United States in 1851 to work at his father’s medical practice.  During the Civil War he worked with military physician William Alexander Hammond at the renowned Turner’s Lane Hospital in Philadelphia, where he was exposed to a wide variety of nerve injuries and neurological conditions. His experiences at the hospital formed the basis of the 1864 publication Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of the Nerves, which Mitchell co-wrote with George R. Morehouse and William W. Keen. After the War’s conclusion he wrote on numerous other neurological subjects including causalgia, the effects of weather on amputation stumps, and traumatic neuralgia.

One of Mitchell’s most enduring legacies, however, is his association with the rest cure.  The rest cure was a means of treating (mostly) women who suffered from nervous disorders (i.e. hysteria).  Patients were subjected a very strict form of bed rest lasting from six weeks to two months, during which they were not allowed to read, write, or have any contact with friends and family.  Excessive force feeding was also a part of the treatment, as Mitchell noted that many nervous women seemed to be thin and anemic, and he therefore believed an increase in their weight would be beneficial to their overall health (the title of his work on the rest cure, Fat and blood and how to make them, is indicative of this philosophy).  If this sounds miserable to you, you’re in good company.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman was prescribed the rest cure by Mitchell and the experience brought her “near the borderline of utter mental ruin;” her famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” was inspired by her ordeal.

Mitchell did not just inspire literary works; he also created them.  He had four short stories published in The Atlantic prior to 1880 but only one of these actually bore his name, perhaps due to a fear that patients might be distrustful of a physician who also dabbled in literary pursuits.  But once he was in his fifties and found himself plagued by boredom during summer vacations at Newport, he began to write novels in earnest.1  He proved to be quite prolific, and his titles include such gems as Prince Little Boy (a collection of fairy tales) and The Adventures of François, Foundling, Thief, Juggler, and Fencing Master, During the French Revolution (the latter was one of Mitchell’s own favorites).   While his fictional works are not rated among the great classics of 19th century American literature, they were reasonably successful during his own lifetime, and in 1898 both The Adventures of François and Hugh Wynne were on the Publishers Weekly bestsellers list.

Mitchell’s status as the preeminent 19th century American neurologist means that he is well represented in our own Richard H. Tyler Collection in Neurology.  This includes both his clinical works and his fictional output, so anyone who feels the need to read the stories found in Prince Little Boy (pictured to the right) is free to do so.

Ernest Earnest’s biography of Weir Mitchell (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950) states that “enforced idleness gave him ‘intestinal neuralgia.’ There was no opportunity for scientific work, and as with success his holidays grew longer, he felt that he must have some occupation in the mornings.” (p. 95)  Charlotte Perkins Gilman would have sympathized, or perhaps been gleefully amused.



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