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Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie 52 (2010) 12, 813 - 823

Review article

Hysteria according to Charcot. The rise and disappearance of the ‘nervous disorder of the century’; a medical historical study

F. Gilson

This study discusses the course of hysteria during the second half of the 19th century.
aim To give insight into the changing ideas about hysteria.
method Study of the literature.
results In 1870 the interpretation of hysteria put forward by the powerful and influential neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) spread from Paris to the whole of France. In the course of time ideas about the aetiology of hysteria were adjusted twice. The clinical symptoms also underwent a metamorphosis and over the years different interpretations of hysteria were accepted by other groups as well. Up till 1870 hysteria had been regarded as a gynaecological illness that affected almost exclusively women; as a result of Charcot’s work the illness was transformed into a neurological disorder. However, shortly before his death Charcot had to acknowledge that he had been mistaken and that hysteria was in fact a psychiatric disorder.
conclusion The course of the 19th century nervous disorder ran parallel to Charcot’s medical career. After 1885 both had passed their peak. When Charcot died in 1893 hysteria had practically disappeared from French hospitals. The Parisian neurologist had not discovered the illness, he had in fact created it himself.

keywords Charcot, history, hypnosis, hysteria