“The Queens of Hysterics”

Marie “Blanche” Wittmann is a name you probably have not heard, although you may know her face. “Blanche” features, among a throng of famous psychologists and neurologists, in the painting Une leçon Clinique à La Salpêtrière (A Clinical Lesson at La Salpêtrière) as the ideal hysterical woman. Her eyes half-closed, collapsed into the arms of a waiting assistant, hair loose, chest exposed, arm stiff and fists contorted. The image is verging on erotic, on ecstasy, reverie — a brutal contrast with the clinical swatch of notable medical students filling the room, and the grim face of Jean-Martin Charcot, the head neuropsychological doctor.

“Blanche” was one of the many “hysterical girls,” at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, an institution brimming with young, mentally ill and abandoned women. She would become the most famous and most sought after hysteric, an early muse to Freud, who kept a small lithograph of this painting over his analytical couch.

In the 19th century, showmanship was as much a part of medicine as tonics and tinctures, and Jean-Martin Charcot’s “Tuesday Lectures” garnered as much of a following as any Vaudeville House. Charcot’s influence in neurology cannot be understated; nearly every major figure of neuropsychology–Alfred Binet (IQ test), Pierre Janet (dissociation/trauma), Gilles de la Tourette, William James (first to teach psychology in the U.S.), Sigmund Freud–was influenced or taught by Charcot.

To attract such great minds, his lectures were nothing less than theatrical. Marie “Blanche” Wittman was his favorite actress for the Ophelian role of “Hysteric. “Blanche” was eighteen when she came to Salpêtrière, essentially an orphan. Her father, a violent carpenter, was institutionalized; her mother was dead, along with her nine siblings. Shortly before her mother died, “Blanche” became a dressmaker, where her employer sexually harassed her whenever they were alone. At fifteen, he raped her. “Blanche” escaped to a hospital, and then a convent, taking on several romances with young men along the way, all the while being stricken with fits. Eventually, she made her way to Salpêtrière as a nurse.

Shortly after arriving, her attacks–hours where she closed her eyes, her body rigid except for sporadic jerks of her limbs, repeating her sister’s name, “Blanche,” over and over–were noticed by Charcot. Although he and other doctors attempted to control her attacks with ovary compressors (an odd devices used to produce static electricity around said area to reduce “lubrication” and sexual excitement), ether, and other early sedatives, her condition only worsened. “Blanche” acted out loved scenes, hallucinated snakes and dead children, and refused to eat (she was tube fed.) She lost sensation in one half of her body, and became hypersensitive in the other.

Her hysteria did, eventually, come under control enough for her to be released sometime before 1889. In the October of that year, she returned to Salpêtrière, but this time as an assistant at the photography laboratory directed by Albert Londe. Eventually, she became an assistant in the new radiology department with Londe. Unfortunately, tragedy would not leave her; she lost her life to cancer caused by exposure, but not before losing her one finger, and then her hand, her forearm, her arm…before the cancer finally ended her life.

Blanche may have suffered from generalised epilepsy with febrile seizures plus, which would have explained her delayed language acquisition, her odd habit of collecting small toys, and the oscillations of her head and trunk. What it did not explain was her spectacular performances under hypnosis. She convulsed, and calmed, on cue. She would tear up blank pieces of paper that she was told were naked pictures of her. She would give fake poisons to a lucky man in the room without hesitation. 

Jane Avril, a woman who spent a year at Salpêtrière before continuing an illustrious dance career, said of “Blanche” and the other hysterical girls, “It was hilarious to see the pride in the faces of those crazy girls as they were chosen by the master.” It was a farce; most of the girls would stop contorting as soon as the doctors were out of view. Understandably so. As long as they performed, the girls were guaranteed better quality of life, medical attention, and possibly upward mobility as doctor’s assistants. (And if they stopped, they were often returned to the “incurables” ward, or solitary confinement.)

However, lectures and articles were not enough for Charcot. He was determined to elevate hysteria into the material. Hysteria was still a half-fiction, a semi-spiritual affliction that had not shaken its association with witchcraft and sin. He took it upon himself to lift hysteria from the shadows of the supernatural and into the light of “objective” medical science, to prove its origin as purely physiological. To do that, he had to take his science into the darkroom. He would hypnotize “Blanche,” prompting her to perform dramatic displays of hysteria–her body and face contorting into intense, aggressive emotion– in front of an audience or camera.

His aggressive desire to document hysteria, cumulated in a collection of photos called Iconographie photographique de la Salpetriere. These images are far from static and clinical; they show women with displays of vibrant, dazzling emotion–screaming, crying, laughing, giving way to all the bursts of feeling that were forbidden for their sex. The camera aimed to control these women, to literally label and pathologize. But, I cannot help but feel a connection with them, with their wild, intense displays, however curated and orchestrated. These photos, despite everything, are intensely, demandingly human, and I think they deserve a name to the face.

Resources 

‘The Girls of the Salpêtrière,’ Olivier Walusinski, MD in ‘Hysteria: The Modern Birth of an Enigma’ Editor: J. Bogousslavsky (Montreux), Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience, 2014 n°33

Clinical history of Blanche Wittman and current knowledge of psychogenic non-epileptic seizures

S. Giménez-Roldán, Former head of the Department of Neurology. Hospital General Universitario Gregorio Marañón, Madrid, Spain. Neurosciences and History 2016; 4(4): 122-129

“Meet the ‘Queen of Hysterics’ Who Was Freud’s Early Muse,” Esther Inglis-Arkel” 7/14/14, Science History for Gizmodo 

Published by darkacademian

Instagram: @caffeaulait

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