University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Neurasthenia Cures for Women: Calm, Quiet, and Retreat from Society

Image: Photograph of “Spoon River,”  by Boardman Robinson. University of Virginia Fralin Museum of Art, Gift of Warren Chappell, 1977.


Physicians usually prescribed the rest cure for women – a retreat into the home, withdrawal from domestic and social responsibilities. Those with the worst cases of neurasthenia were prescribed complete bed rest for six to eight weeks in dim rooms, sometimes without books or substantive conversations, and with only soothing activities. This rest cure was first developed by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell in the 1880s.

Women were to have time alone, without interruption by children, other family members, or friends. They were to rest, live quietly, read uplifting literature (and avoid depressing reading), and take light exercise such as walking. They were to avoid strenuous mental effort. In their quiet homes and gardens, talking only with their closest friends and family, they could replenish the nervous energy that the modern world and too much mental activity had drained away.

By the early 1900s, women were also prescribed vigorous exercise in natural areas away from the city, if they were strong enough for the physical effort. Later, they were also encouraged to read and discuss serious books if they were intellectually inclined.

Thus the treatment for women gradually came more in line with the treatment for men. However, the rest cure continued to be the standard treatment for women with neurasthenia.

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