In this episode of High Theory, Kim talks with Saronik about neurasthenia. A disease that no longer exists, neurasthenia was a nineteenth century American epidemic of energy depletion. Thinking about this diagnosis can help us understand the social functions of medical knowledge, and how that knowledge changes over time.
In the episode Kim discusses two nineteenth-century medical texts: American Nervousness: It’s Causes and Consequences (New York: Putnam, 1881) by George Miller Beard, which popularized the diagnosis, and Fat and Blood: And How to Make Them (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1877), by S. Weir Mitchell, which popularized the “rest cure” treatment. She also references three scholarly texts: Tom Lutz’s American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Cornell UP, 1992); Carolyn Tomas de la Pena’s The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American (NYU Press, 2003); and Anson Rabinbach’s The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (UC Press, 1992).
Kim Adams is one of the co-hosts of High Theory. She works as a postdoctoral fellow at the Pennsylvania State University Humanities Institute, where she is writing a book about electricity and the body in American medicine and literature. She also runs a working group on pain management as a cultural process, called Politics of the Prescription Pad. She lives in Rhode Island and has a very large dog named Tag.
This week’s image is a 1907 painting titled “On the Southern Plain” by Frederic Remington. The painting shows soldiers on horseback in the American West. Remington was diagnosed with neurasthenia and treated with the “west cure” (discussed in the episode) by S. Weir Mitchell himself.