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

The American West: A Cure for Neurasthenia

Image: “Roosevelt and Muir,” on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The most common prescription for prominent men with neurasthenia was that they move away from cities and live vigorous, outdoor lives. Many were specifically told to go to the American West, which was considered wild and undeveloped. They went to the Western plains and mountains – the Dakotas, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah – often living on cattle ranches and near American Indian tribes.

Evolution of Neurathesia

Image: “Herd Quitter,” 1897, Charles Marion Russell. Wikimedia Commons.

A prime example is Theodore Roosevelt, later president of the United States, who was sent west to recover. He was convinced that simple life in the western wilderness had restored his health. He became a committed conservationist and was key in the development of national parks and nature forests in the United States. He thought that Americans should be able to enjoy the revitalizing wilderness.

Frederick Remington, Charles Russell, and Thomas Moran were all sent west to recover from neurasthenia. They became the leading artists depicting the American West of cowboys, cattle, Indians, desert sunsets, and mountain grandeur. Their paintings and sculptures are still our archetypal images of the American West.

Owen Wister, a young writer from Philadelphia (son of a wealthy physician), went to Wyoming to recharge his nervous energy. (Both his father and mother had years-long struggles with neurasthenia.) While in Wyoming, he wrote The Virginian (1902), a novel that created the literary genre of the western.


Theodore Roosevelt felt that the rugged life he spent in the Dakotas in his 30s restored his health.

When he became president in 1901, he set aside vast tracts of federal land in the West to be used as parks and nature preserves so that future generations of city-weary Americans could have the benefit of this natural therapy. Overall, he set aside 230 million acres-more than all earlier presidents combined. He also established the National Forest Service.

While president, he toured Yosemite Valley in 1903 with John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club  and considered the father of the U.S. natural preservation movement. Muir had been working for years to have Yosemite made a national park, like Yellowstone National Park. Two years after Roosevelt and Muir camped out in Yosemite Valley, the park was transferred from the state of California to the national park system.


Owen Wister, the young man who went to Wyoming in search of a cure to his neurasthenia, wrote The Virginian in 1902 and began the tradition of the cowboy novel.

Owen Wister

Image: “Owen Wister,” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wister’s novels were not the first set in the American West. ‘Dime novels’ – short adventure stories, printed on pulp paper – had emphasized frontier stories when they began in the 1860s. But by the 1870s, the focus had shifted to cities and often to detective stories.

Wister’s The Virginian, however, was a serious, if short, novel that created a highly romantic image of cowboys and the American West. His main character – referred to only as the Virginian or the Southerner – is a natural aristocrat in the rough, often lawless world of the West. He is uneducated but courteous, upright, fearless, and stalwart. Many elements in the story are still standard today in novels and movies about the West: the hero is handsome but unassuming, laconic, leads a hard physical life, has a quiet but firm sense of right and wrong, falls in love with the local school teacher, fights cattle thieves, and gets the girl.

The Virginian has hundreds of descendents in books and movies – novels by Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Larry McMurtry; and movie cowboys played by Tom Mix, John Wayne, Robert Duvall, Tom Selleck, and Sam Elliott.

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