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The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History's new book is now on sale. What follows is one of 22 classic articles that appear in the book, along with 18 new articles that you can't r...
  • Boots McKinnon

    "Here, just let me fix that for you...." Vintage Ad for the Victorian cure for hysteria and "all diseases of the Mid-Quarters"

  • Brian Finnell

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  • Amy Cook Holmes

    Female hysteria was a once-common medical diagnosis, found exclusively in women, which is today no longer recognized as a disorder. The diagnosis and treatment of female hysteria was routine for hundreds of years in Western Europe and America. The disorder was widely discussed in the medical literature of the Victorian era (1837-1901). In 1859, a physician was noted for claiming that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. One American doctor cataloged 75 pages of possible symptoms of the condition, and called the list incomplete. According to the document, almost any ailment could fit the diagnosis for female hysteria. Physicians thought that the stresses associated with modern life caused civilized women to be more susceptible to nervous disorders, and to develop faulty reproductive tracts. Women considered to be suffering from hysteria exhibited a wide array of symptoms, including faintness, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in abdomen, muscle spasm, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and “a tendency to cause trouble”. The history of this diagnosis is obviously controversial because of the wide range of bizarre symptoms and causes, but the case gets more shocking when you look at the treatment. During this time, female hysteria was widely associated with sexual dissatisfaction. For this reason, the patients would undergo weekly “pelvic massages.” During these sessions, a doctor would manually stimulate the female’s genitals, until the patient experienced repeated “hysterical paroxysm” (orgasms). It is interesting to note that this diagnosis was quite profitable for physicians, since the patients were at no risk of death, but needed constant care. Pelvic massages were used as a medical treatment on women into the 1900s. Around 1870, doctors around the world realized that a new electrical invention could help the vaginal massage technique. You see, in many cases physicians found it hard to reach hysterical paroxysm. I think you can imagine why this would be the case. In 1873, the first electromechanical vibrator was developed and used at an asylum in France for the treatment of female hysteria. For decades, these mechanical devices were only available to doctors for the use in pelvic massages. By the turn of the century, the spread of home electricity brought the vibrator to the consumer market. Over the course of the early 1900s, the number of diagnoses of female hysteria sharply declined, and today it is no longer a recognized illness.

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