S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914: Philadelphia’s Literary Physician by Nancy Cervetti (review)
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Nancy Cervetti. S. Weir Mitchell, 1829–1914: Philadelphia’s Literary Physician. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. xii + 295 pp. Ill. $79.95 (978-0-271-05403-2).

A full biography of S. Weir Mitchell has long been needed. Ironically, his multifaceted life has stood in the way. Today he is remembered largely as a controversial founder of the rest cure, the man who treated or mistreated women suffering from what the age called hysteria. Although an important part of his livelihood and reputation, ministering to mentally troubled women was just one piece of his career. He was first respected as an experimental physiologist known for pioneering and enduring work on snakebite and gunshot wounds. Less enduring was his third phase that made him in his day famous to the point of celebrity, his work as a writer of fiction and poetry.

Nancy Cervetti has done a great service by presenting and evaluating the whole man. Not relying on five previous biographies, she searched out primary sources to present a rich portrait of his work and personal life. Born the son of a respected Philadelphia physician, Mitchell received conventional medical training at Jefferson Medical College, including the standard understanding of women’s frailty. Travel in Europe and exposure to French medicine awakened in him desires for physiological research. As he joined his father in practice, he established himself in a laboratory where he found his calling. He focused on snakes and in 1860 produced his Report on the Venom of the Rattlesnake. During the Civil War, as a contract surgeon, Mitchell remained in Philadelphia. This difficult period saw the deaths of his wife and one brother from diphtheria, but provided an important field for clinical study, those suffering from gunshot wounds. His coauthored work with two colleagues, Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of Nerves (1864), expanded and revised as Injuries of the Nerves and Their Consequences (1872), proved pathbreaking.

Failing to get the teaching appointments that might have allowed him to continue experimental research, Mitchell joined the Orthopedic Hospital in 1871 and became the first attending physician for its Infirmary for Nervous Diseases. [End Page 690] During the Civil War, along with gunshot wounds he had also dealt with what was called “malingering,” the seeming fabrication of symptoms to avoid returning to battle. Mitchell interpreted what he saw as nervous collapse and developed a therapy of rest to allow the soldier’s nervous system to repair. In the infirmary he began to apply this same approach to some of its patients. His Wear and Tear; or, Hints for the Overworked (1871) brought his ideas to a wide audience.

Previously weighed down by many cares and losses, his life changed in 1875 by his marriage to an elite Philadelphia woman of wealth. They moved to a grand house where they entertained lavishly. There he had a medical office and specialized in the private treatment of sufferers from neurasthenia and hysteria. In his Fat and Blood (1877) he set out the elements of his therapeutic strategy—rest, seclusion, massage, electricity, diet, and counseling—and offered case histories. As Mitchell’s practice grew, he became wealthy in his own name.

Over time Mitchell was able to leave Philadelphia for long periods and focus on his writing. Beginning in 1884, he wrote novels in the romance tradition, as well as poetry and short stories. And these, especially Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897), added to his wealth and fame. His daughter’s death cast a deep shadow, but two sons survived him, one of whom kept his practice and medical reputation going during the long absences.

A strength of this biography is its informed discussion of Mitchell’s writing career. A literary scholar with a prior book on three British women novelists, including Virginia Woolf, the author has deep interest in talented women confronting a society offering them little opportunity. One of the most interesting parts of this book is careful attention to Mitchell’s adversarial position opposing women’s higher education. Here and elsewhere, Cervetti effectively portrays Mitchell’s engagement in conflicts.

Less satisfying for scholars of the history of medicine is her treatment of the content and...