Content Warning: Discussions of sexual assault and violence against women.
Everybody was talking about hysteria in late 19th-century Paris. Hysterics appeared in novels and plays; they were painted, photographed, sculpted and drawn. People crowded the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris to attend demonstrations and lectures on hysterics given by the world-renowned neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), and to gaze at his star patients. Who could resist admiring the ‘queen of hysterics’, the beautiful Blanche Wittmann (1859-1913), her face relaxed and insensible as she was pierced with needles by doctors, to demonstrate how she couldn’t feel any pain?
Born Marie Wittmann, Blanche was a ‘difficult’ child, who came from an abusive household. She was sent as an apprentice to a furrier, who sexually assaulted her at thirteen. Her medical symptoms quickly followed, and she eventually ran away, finding work as a ‘fille de service’, or a ‘ward girl’ at another hospital, before being hired at the Salpêtrière, where she spent the rest of her life. Patients provided much of the labour needed to keep the gigantic hospital and its facilities running: the work was mandatory for patients who were able, who were paid a nominal fee for their work. Hysterics were the stars of the hospital, but they were also not considered ‘insane’; according to Charcot, they suffered from a neurological disorder, not a mental illness (a statement which has been rightly problematised) and so the hysterics enjoyed a certain level of freedom. There was even a ‘bal des folles’ – a ball of the madwomen – at the hospital, in which patients dressed up, sang and danced.
When Blanche was admitted, at eighteen years old, she suffered from convulsions, paralysis, and fainting spells. In her early days there, she was described as ordinary, although her ‘hysterogenic zones’ (points in the body which could trigger hysterical attacks) were very sensitive. During her fits, she often called out the name Blanche (possibly her sister’s name), which was why she eventually started to be called by that name. Blanche was described as beautiful, with her fair skin, big bosom, and blonde hair: a perfect example of femininity, with an ever-fragile and vulnerable female body, largely susceptible to hysteria.
Hypnotism played a central role in shaping Blanche. It wasn’t used to treat patients, but to reproduce symptoms and allow for doctors to experiment. It allowed the unpredictable, unruly female body to become ‘rational’ and predictable, following a specific order. Charcot wanted to provide a rational framework for hysterical symptoms, and he used hypnotism to create the three main phases of hysteria: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. For him, hypnosis allowed doctors to study hysteria and isolate symptoms. Furthermore, he considered those more susceptible to hypnosis to likely be hysterics themselves (which was highly contested at the time). Blanche was at the centre of all these theoretical discussions.
Through endless demonstrations (they sometimes lasted hours), Blanche held gravity-defying poses for long periods of time, was flashed with bright lights, was hypnotised, received electrical stimuli, was pricked with needles, was deceived by doctors, and had her body manipulated in virtually all ways one can imagine. When she arrived at the Salpêtrière, the young Marie presented a variety of difficult-to-diagnose symptoms but, years later, as Blanche, she was the perfect hysteric, whose symptoms flawlessly illustrated Charcot’s teachings. She was shaped slowly by her life at the hospital, where her name was changed as she was, by the social and medical milieu she inhabited. She was transformed from an ‘ordinary’ hysteric into an ‘exemplary’ one through practice and repetition of enacting her symptoms: her talent and beauty made her the ‘ideal’ hysteric, and the literal star of the show.
Attending these demonstrations at the Salpêtrière was fashionable (socialites sat side by side with politicians, physicians, and artists – not to mention Sigmund Freud), but it was also fascinating, as people could see ‘Charcot’s hysterics’ act out the symptoms of hysteria. Arguably, these sessions were even more about theatre than they were about medicine. Charcot’s goal wasn’t to treat his patients, but rather to isolate and reproduce symptoms in a specific order, to classify the chaotic, making his patients living incarnations of the illness. His focus was on hysteria itself, not people like Blanche.
Although she was a medical celebrity, a ‘diva’ in contemporary terms, Blanche’s relationship with her doctors, and especially Charcot, was uneasy. Hysterics were believed to be overly sexual and deceitful, exaggerating their symptoms and blatantly lying to others. Additionally, theirs was a necessarily unbalanced relationship: the wealthy and educated male doctors held almost absolute power over the poor, uneducated female patients. And it is chilling how casually sexual relationships between them were brushed aside in the records, as though not worthy of mention. Not to mention how many of these ‘experiments’ were violent or cruel.
After Charcot’s death in 1893, hysteria as it had been created (and the ‘medical divas’ it had shaped) was in decline. His followers disbanded, his theories were largely abandoned, and his patients lost their star status. Interestingly, Blanche never suffered another hysterical attack after Charcot’s death, nor any other symptoms. She continued at the Salpêtrière but as an employee, not a patient. Blanche was interested in photography, and so she worked as an assistant at the photography laboratory for a while, before working as a radiology technician. She refused to talk about her past as the ‘queen of hysterics’. Sadly, Blanche developed radiology-induced cancer, and spent her final years in pain, suffering a series of amputations to her limbs, until she finally died.
Hysteria has a long history, from the ‘wandering womb’ in ancient Greece to contemporary discourse: female politicians are often described as ‘hysterics’ by their detractors. In the 19th century, it was an illness linked to unruly womanhood, to women who did not conform to strictly limited gender roles, in one way or another. It was in some ways a female response to a stifling patriarchal society: women who suffered from hysteria often felt paralysed.
It is impossible to know to what degree Blanche’s illness was physically or socially determined, or whether her symptoms were somatic or psychosomatic. She wasn’t exactly a fraud, nor was she just a passive recipient of Charcot’s actions. It is also problematic to try to diagnose her retrospectively, a usually frowned-upon idea for historians of medicine. What we do know is just how influential Blanche’s demonstrations were: would we have Madame Bovary without people like her, or Freudian psychoanalysis as we know it? Blanche’s case illustrates how the physical body and the culture of a specific time and place can transform medical symptoms, influencing the way illnesses are understood: cultures shape bodies, which respond and adapt. But Blanche’s story is also a tale of a young woman who had few options, and who had to be resourceful to survive. She might have been described as not particularly intelligent, but I find that hard to believe.
Jean-Marie Charcot, ‘Sur les divers états nerveux déterminés par l’hypnotisation chez les hystériques’,Comptes Rendues hebdomadaires des séances de l’Académie des Sciences 94 (1882): 403-405.
Albert Londe, La photographie médicale: application aux sciences médicales et physiologiques (Paris, 1893).
Désiré Magloire Bourneville and Paul-Marie-Léon Regnard, Iconographie Photographique de la Salpetriere (Service de M. Charcot) (Paris, 1878).
Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière (Boston, 2004T).
Per Olov Enquist, The Story of Blanche and Marie (London, 2007).
Asti Hustvedt, Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris (London, 2011).