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Chorea and Community in a Nineteenth-Century Town

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 76, Number 3, Fall 2002
pp. 495-527 | 10.1353/bhm.2002.0150



The dominant historical narrative of Huntington's disease (Huntington's chorea) has portrayed the early American sufferers from this disorder as marginalized and vilified. This article argues, however, that afflicted families in East Hampton, New York-the site of George Huntington's mid-nineteenth-century observations-were mostly accepted and integrated within the community, some of them as members of the gentry and active participants in local governance. As descendants of early English settlers in this multiracial town, these white Presbyterian families, some of whose members were afflicted with what was locally called "St. Vitus's dance" or "that disorder," were always defined as "one of ours." While this fatal inherited neurological illness became more secret and hidden toward the end of the nineteenth century, this article suggests that it was larger cultural and social changes, rather than factors intrinsic to the disease, that led to the shift. The East Hampton story suggests the ways in which specific historical circumstances in a community may shape the social meanings of even so severe a disease as Huntington's, and that social integration of the afflicted families may have helped mitigate the suffering of the disease.

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