Which 19th-century Philadelphia physician was one of the first to study "hysteria"?

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Which 19th-century Philadelphia physician was one of the first to study "hysteria"?

2013-02-10 15:32


Answer: Silas Weir Mitchell


Philadelphia was the home of Silas Weir Mitchell, a 19th-century physician and author who specialized in nervous disorders and hysteria. Mitchell, the son of noted physician John Kearsley Mitchell, attended the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Medical College. His career took off after the Civil War, as he delved further into the field of neurology. He was the first to describe erythromelalgia, which was then called “Mitchell’s Disease,” a disorder that attacks a patient’s extremities (hands, arms, and feet) and causes burning and swelling. He also became one of the first doctors to study the nervous condition called “hysteria” in women.

To treat nervous disorders, Mitchell often prescribed his “rest cure.” This cure—which involved bed rest, isolation, dieting, and massage—became widely used in the United States and Europe, though it was not without its critics. In 1892, author and activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a semi-autobiographical short story called The Yellow Wallpaper in which the main character, a woman, went mad after being prescribed the “rest cure.”

Mitchell was also a poet and author. His most famous novel was Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1898), a story of historical fiction that was set in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. He lived his whole life in Philadelphia and died at his home in 1914. He was buried in Woodlands Cemetery.

The society has several of Silas Weir Mitchell's books in the library, from his medial works to his fiction. Additionally, among our manuscript collections are Silas Weir Mitchell autobiography (Am. 10477) and Hugh Wynne: Free Quaker (extra illustrated biography) by Silas Weir Mitchell (Ar .99 M68).

Image: Silas Weir Mitchell, photograph by F. Gutekunst (1876)


Submitted by Oleg (not verified) on

The American Photographer Frederick F. Gutekunst Jr. of Philadelphia (1831-1917) was a favored photographer by the East Coast Elite and even celebreties like the shy Walt Witman and Civil War Hero General Grant, who later became President of the United States, had their picture taken by him. Frederick Gutekunst was a daguerreian from 1857-1860 in Philadelphia, Pa. From 1854 to 1860 the firm was listed at 706 Arch Street (In 1857 at 164 Arch Street). Before entering into photography as a full time business, he succeeded in making copper electrotype plates from daguerreotypes. He obtained his first daguerreotype camera by trading an electrical battery to Dr. Isaac Norris for it, and then he got a better lens for the camera from a photographer known as the "Buckeye Blacksmith". Born in 1831 in Germantown, Pa., Frederick experimented early with the daguerreian process, and opened a gallery with his brother Lewis Gutekunst in 1856. Frederick Gutekunst is listed in "Photography in America" on several pages. The coat of arms which is shown on the back of many of his photographs is surenly not a registered coat of arms of the Gutekunst family, but rather a fashionalbe idea to please his fancy clients.

Submitted by Cary Hutto on

Thanks for reading and commenting, Oleg! Indeed, Gutekunst was a very prolific photographer in Philadelphia in the mid to late 1800s, and his work is quite recognizable today. His photos are frequently found throughout many of our collections.

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