The Nerves of Men and Women
MEN’S NERVES AND NEURASTHENIA
Men among the leading families carried heavy burdens, whether in business, government, or their social obligations. They were responsible for the well being of their families and for society as a whole. The constant mental demands as well as the physical labor of fulfilling their responsibilities depleted their nerve energy.
Worse, the fast pace of modern life and constant hustle of city life drained their nervous energy. Most elite families lived in major cities and therefore faced the noise, dirt, and constant jostling of cities, plus the hectic pace of modern life.
A list of prominent American men treated for neurasthenia would cover leaders in all areas of professional and artistic life. No leading family was untouched. Examples are:
The James Family of New York City:
- Henry James, the prominent novelist who wrote The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, and The Wings of the Dove
- His brother William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher (and graduate of Harvard Medical School), prominent proponent of pragmatism
- Their sister Alice James, noted now for her diary, published only after her death
WOMEN’S NERVES AND NEURASTHENIA
Women in leading families faced most of the same modern, urban environment as men. They were not usually leaders in government and business, but they had demanding social responsibilities and were often involved in the arts. Most important, however, they were responsible for the health, education, and moral development of their children, plus the running of their large households and assuring the well being of everyone attached to it (including servants).
Women were, according to medical opinion of the time, constitutionally weaker and more prone to nervous problems than men were. Therefore, the demands of their lives made them especially susceptible to the headaches, indigestion, depression, and anxiety that were the hallmarks of neurasthenia (nervous exhaustion). Also, because their reproductive systems made heavy demands on their bodies, they had a harder time replenishing their nervous energy than men did.
Neurasthenia is often remembered incorrectly as primarily a woman’s disease because so many American women were treated for it. Examples of prominent American women are:
- Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, the first settlement house (philanthropy for poor immigrants), first American woman to win a Nobel Prize
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social reformer, poet and writer, author of “The Yellow Wallpaper”
- Amelia Gere Mason, critic, essayist, intellectual historian, principal of a private school, and member of the Fortnightly of Chicago, an intellectual discussion group for women
- Theodore Roosevelt, University of Virginia Miller Center
- William James, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Henry James
- Alice James, PBS
- Jane Addams Hull-House Museum
- “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Project Gutenberg
- “Personalizing Illness and Modernity: S. Weir Mitchell, Literary Women, and Neurasthenia, 1870–1914″ by David G. Schuster
- The Fortnightly of Chicago