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Sigmund Freud is a name most of us instantly recognize. The classic photo below has him bearded, balding, and scholarly, wearing a three-piece suit and holding a cigar. We know him as a physician who treated mental disorders by exploring repressed and unconscious feelings. Most of us know the term Freudian slip, part of his theory that slips of the tongue were no accident — they were meaningful looks into the patient’s unconscious mind. Known as parapraxias, these slips of the tongue were said to reveal inner conflicts. His treatment for hysteria was revolutionary.


The modern definition of hysteria is behavior exhibiting excessive or uncontrollable emotion, such as fear, panic, or laughter.

Through most of the 18th and 19th centuries, hysteria was the most commonly diagnosed disorder among female patients

For hundreds of years it had been considered a condition suffered only by women, bringing with it symptoms of insomnia, nervousness, irritability, melancholia, tears, and emotional instability.

According to Medical News Today, hysteria was a blanket term that explained symptoms and behaviors considered to be ladies’ ailments, and not proper topics for discussion in those stiffly proper times.

One prominent 18th century physician said hysteria was a form of emotional instability caused by sexual deprivation

As Medical News Today reports, other distinguished medical doctors said women were predisposed to hysteria because of their lazy and irritable natures. One physician presented a case study of “a nun affected by hysteria, who became cured only when a well-wishing barber took it upon himself to pleasure her.”

Hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus

It roughly translates to “wandering womb.” In 400 BC, Hippocrates said hysteria is a condition where a female’s uterus wanders around inside her body, searching for semen. This uterine displacement caused her other organs to malfunction. Doctors treated hysteria in many different ways, including the one illustrated below. My favorite treatment is when doctors would induce sneezing in the patient, thus driving the uterus back into its proper place.  

Wikipedia says one of the common cures for hysteria was an early form of aromatherapy

Attendants would place bad odors at the woman’s nose and pleasant scents at her genitals. Bad odors were said to force the uterus downward while pleasant scents sent it upward.

In the 19th century, Doctors treated sexually deprived female patients with genital massages

The goal of this intimate touching was to induce hysterical paroxysm (orgasm). Satisfied patients returned again and again, eager to pay for ongoing treatment. Doctors would digitally manipulate their favored female patients personally, consigning others to the ministrations of a midwife.

Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention

Psychologytoday.com says in medical journals of the 1800s, doctors complained that treating hysterical women in this manner fatigued their hands and asked if a mechanical device could be invented. In 1880, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville patented the electromechanical vibrator. By the turn of the century, women could treat themselves in the privacy of their homes.

The Atlantic says the vibrator invention story is just that

“People want to hear stories. Vibrator stories sell,” it said. Historian Hallie Lieberman adds “I like the story. It’s sexy; it’s salacious; it’s doctor-patient porn in the form of serious scholarship that you can bring up at dinner parties.” The New York Times says the 2011 filmHysteria,’ starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, centered its entire story around this myth about vibrators.”

Franz Mesmer was a German doctor who used magnetism to treat hysteria

He believed that when these invisible currents got out of kilter, they caused health problems. He said that by placing small magnets on strategic places on his patients’ bodies, he could alter the magnetic flow and channel it in a way that restored health. He soon modified his procedure by getting rid of the magnets and using his own animal magnetism to restore the health of his patients. 

Then the idea came to him that he could treat many more patients if he invented a machine to magnetize them in groups

Called a baquet, it was a wooden tub filled with magnetized water and iron rods sticking up around the rim. Patients would hold the affected areas of their bodies against the rods. The New European said “Part séance, part group therapy, and part social event, up to 200 people a day would undergo charming and bewitchingly charismatic Franz Mesmer’s bizarre form of therapy.”

If something catches and holds your attention, as if by magic, it’s mesmerizing

Mesmer mesmerized his patients by putting them in a trance, a state that led to the development and use of hypnosis in therapeutic settings. Hypnosis replaced magnetism as the technique doctors used to get at patients’ problems by bringing their deepest, darkest thoughts to light.

Hysteria began to be understood as a condition involving the brain, and not a wandering uterus after all

The clinical successes Mesmer achieved with his hypnosis were determined to be the result of the mental images and soothing verbal repetition he induced in his patients — not his magnets — and he was widely discredited.


Freud argued that hysteria was triggered by traumatic events that transformed psychological issues into physical symptoms. His redefinition of hysteria as a psychological condition replaced the idea of physical causes. Freud believed the ultimate cause of hysteria was sexual abuse because most of his patients reported being sexually abused as children, usually by their fathers. He stuck with this notion until he came to the conclusion that too many female patients were making up their stories of abuse to fool the doctor into treating them.

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