Do you suffer from headaches, sadness, low energy, high energy, hearing loss, anxiety, pain, hallucinations, or any other problem AND you have a uterus? This can only lead to one diagnosis: hysteria! Hysteria (from the Greek hystera = uterus) began as the idea of the uterus moving around the body, causing all sorts of physical and mental troubles on the way. The first mentions of the wandering womb date back to 1900 BC. Throughout the ages, hysteria remained an umbrella diagnosis for a variety of issues women faced, from more ‘reasonable’ ones (different ailments) to everything seen as ‘unwomanly’ behaviors, like being short-tempered, not wanting to marry, or not being interested in having children.
As the history of hysteria spans thousands of years, the exact nature of the illness varies depending on the time period we’re looking into. Apart from the wandering womb, other reasons for hysteria included the imbalance of humors in the uterus, too much sex, not enough sex, childlessness, and even … demonic possession. Many beliefs, folk medicine, and superstitions surrounding these ideas survived in the minds of common folk for centuries, even when more scientific methods were taking hold.
The shift from the physical to more psychological background of hysteria in the 18th and 19th century was a small step forward, however, as it was still a catch-all diagnosis for diseases that should have been studied separately and, unfortunately, often a tool for controlling women who did not want to conform to the societal expectations. In extreme cases, ‘hysterical’ women were forced to spend the rest of their lives in asylums or undergo completely unnecessary surgical hysterectomies. The unwillingness of physicians to study female medical problems and sexuality combined with the blind belief in the well-established practices of the past led to the creation of dozens of bizarre therapies and cures, which we’ll be exploring in the following weeks.
Everlasting pill, also known as a perpetual pill, was a popular 19th-century medicine which was supposed to bring balance to the body’s humors by inducing purging. ⏳
The pills were made of metallic antimony, a highly poisonous substance that causes health effects similar to arsenic poisoning. 💀 Why was it called an “everlasting” pill? An antimony pill would pass through the gastric system practically intact, so people would retrieve it, clean it, and put away for later use. Antimony was also a valuable metal at the time, so it was quite common to keep it the family and hand it down from generation to generation. 👻
💀 “RESTORATION of LIFE in CASES of SUDDEN DEATH.—For this benevolent purpose, Dr. SIBLY’s RE-ANIMATING SOLAR TINCTURE, supersedes every art and invention. In all circumstances of suicide, or sudden death, whether by blows, fits, falls, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, apoplexy, thunder and lightning, assassination, duelling, &c., immediate recourse should be had to this medicine, which will not fail to restore life, provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it, which they undoubtedly are much oftener than is imagined.” 💀
This is how Dr. Sibly advertised his Solar Tincture ☀️ in the 1790s and early 19th century. A miracle cure that could cheat Death himself! 👻 While buying such a remedy seems ridiculous, many people could have been inclined to do so given the high mortality rate of the times, popular fear of being buried alive, and Sibly’s medical title (even though he had bought his degree). Another cure-all from Dr. Sibly’s shelf was the Lunar Tincture. 🌕 It was supposed to be the answer to all female problems, which according to Dr. Sibly were caused mainly by the lack of sex, too much sex, menstruation, lack of pregnancy, or menopause. You can find the original article on the Lunar Tincture in the Wellcome Collection archive but be prepared for constant eye-rolling. 🙄
“Clyster, bleed, purge, repeat” could be a motto for many doctors throughout the ages who believed that bad blood, humor imbalance, or miasma were causing all illnesses known to humanity. Such treatments were used as universal cure-alls since the ancient times up to the late nineteenth century. 💀😱