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Health Sciences Library Hosts Exhibit on 19th Century Author and Work

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
February 13th, 2013

How do you handle the stresses of daily life? Some thrive on a non-stop schedule. Others take up a hobby, read, or seek out a few quiet moments to escape a hectic day.

A century ago, a doctor might diagnose a stress-laden woman with neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion, and prescribe her months of isolation and rest. That diagnosis was the case for artist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Her experience, referenced in her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” is the topic of a National Library of Medicine (NLM) traveling exhibit on display at the WVU Health Sciences Library through March 23. Consisting of six free-standing banners, “Literature of Prescription” is on display in the Library’s lobby.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

In the late 1800s, when Gilman consulted Dr. S. Weir Mitchell for help dealing with a bout of melancholy, he advised her: “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live.”

The NLM’s website for the exhibit explains that Mitchell was among many medical and scientific experts who believed that mental health issues were “rife among women who attempted to exceed their natural limits.”

Gilman followed Mitchell’s instruction and found herself brought to near madness. She credited her “remnants of intelligence” and a wise friend for her recovery.

“I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again – work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power,” Gilman later wrote.

After her recovery, she penned the short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” about a young woman driven mad by the rest cure.

Critics called the short story sensational and said that it would hamper attempts to help those suffering from neurasthenia. However, according to the NLM, Gilman’s words “served as an indictment of the medical profession and the social conventions restricting women’s professional and creative opportunities.”

In a piece published in The Forerunner in 1913, Gilman explained that her goal was “to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked.”

“It has to my knowledge saved one woman from a similar fate – so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered. Many years later I was told that the great specialist had admitted to friends of his that he had altered his treatment of neurasthenia since reading ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’,” Gilman wrote.

For more information about the exhibit, contact Lori Hostuttler: lori.hostuttler@mail.wvu.edu or 304-293-1922.

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