An Epidemic Of HystericsWilliam St. Clare
In 1787 AD, William St. Clare, doctor, wrote about a classic case of hysteria where, "a girl put a mouse into the breast of another girl who had a great dread of mice. The girl was immediately thrown into a fit, and continued in it with the most violent convulsions for 24 hours". A total 24 girls began to imitate the symptoms and the cotton mill where they all worked was shut down for fear of a plague that entered the factory from a bag of cotton. Clare cured them all instantly with his electric shock machine! Here is an example of how a form of torture, instantly snapped these girls out of their acting. The motive was likely a combination of fun, attention and getting a few days off work. Meric Casaubon had correctly speculated in his "A treatise concerning enthusiasme" (1655) that such events were contagious (learned and imitated), "should be contagious: though not contagious in the same manner, as the Plague, or the Pox is; yet contagious in their kind". In 1701 AD, John Freind noted a case of two related families of what became known, "the barking girls", who "barking and howling like dogs . . . accompanied by violent rhythmic movements of the head and contortions of the face . . . when their breath failed they would one by one fall into a paroxysm like an epileptic fit". These three cases show that "insane behaviour" is often a game and play acting. (An Epidemic Of Hysterics, William St. Clare, 1787 AD)
"`I will not make a question of it to dispute it' wrote the searching Casaubon (A treatise concerning enthusiasme, 1655), 'I desire only to propose it, that learned Naturalists and Physicians may . . . consider of it; Whether it be probable or possible, that naturall Ecstasies and Enthusiasms, such as proceed from naturall causes merely, should be contagious: though not contagious in the same manner, as the Plague, or the Pox is; yet contagious in their kind'. But very few epidemics of insanity, hysterics, dancing mania or tarantism such as occurred on the Continent were recorded in England and the few were limited to small and closely knit communities. A famous one was described by John Freind (1675- 1728), MD Oxon, FRCP, FRS, first English historian of medicine, in a letter `De Spasmi Rarioris Historia' in The Philosophical Transactions, 1701, popularly known as the case of 'the barking girls of Oxford'. The children of two related families of Blackthorn had for some months been seized by frequent attacks of `barking and howling like dogs . . . accompanied by violent rhythmic movements of the head and contortions of the face . . . when their breath failed they would one by one fall into a paroxysm like an epileptic fit' — obviously the effects of hyperventilation. Physicians were called but proved powerless and the disease was ascribed to possession. When a hundred years later an epidemic of 'hysterics' occurred among the girl workers in a Lancashire cotton mill as quoted here from a contemporary report, Dr St Clare was able to stop it promptly with shocks from his portable electrical machine." (300 years of Psychiatry, Richard Hunter, 1963, p 506)
An Epidemic Of Hysterics, William St. Clare, 1787 AD
William St. Clare (1752-1822)
MD Edin., physician of Preston and Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Lancashire
Country news. In: The Gentleman's Magazine, 1787 Vol. 57, part I, p. 268
AN EPIDEMIC OF HYSTERICS
At a Cotton Manufactory, at Hodder Bridge, in Lancashire, a girl, on the 15th of February, put a mouse into the breast of another girl who had a great dread of mice. The girl was immediately thrown into a fit, and continued in it with the most violent convulsions for 24 hours. On the following day, three more girls were seized in the same manner; and on the 17th, six more. By this time the alarm was so great, that the whole work, in which between 200 and 300 were employed, was totally stopped, and an idea prevailed that a particular disease had been introduced by a bag of cotton opened in the house.—On Sunday, the 18th, Doctor St. Clare was sent for from Preston; before he arrived, three more were seized; and during that night and the morning of the 19th, eleven more, making in all 24. Of these, 21 were young women, two were girls of about ten years of age, and one man, who had been much fatigued with holding the girls. Three of the number lived about two miles from the place where the disorder first broke out, and three at another factory at Clitheroe, about five miles distant; which last, and two more, were infected entirely from report, not having seen the other patients; but, like them and the rest of the country, strongly impressed with the idea of the plague being caught from the cotton. The symptoms were, anxiety, strangulation, and very strong convulsions; and these were so violent as to last, without any intermission, from a quarter of an hour to twenty-four hours, and to require four or five persons to prevent the patients from tearing their hair and dashing their heads against the floor or walls. Doctor St. Clare had taken with him a portable electrical machine, and by electric shocks, the patients were universally relieved without exception. As soon as the patients and country were assured that the complaint was merely nervous, easily cured, and not introduced by the cotton, no fresh person was affected.
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