Fordham History Student Studies Evolution of Gender-Based Illness Treatment: From the 19th Century to Now

This past summer, history and political science major Nora Thomas, FCRH ‘21, received a grant from Fordham University to conduct research on the history of gender-based treatment, which is the assignment of men and women to different treatments of illnesses on the basis of fundamental biological differences. Previously, Thomas has studied the effects of diseases such as syphilis on European society throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, particularly how such diseases may have pioneered the discussion of psychological diseases such as hysteria within both the medical field and general society. Thomas’ recent research, however, led her to discover a disorder with almost identical symptoms to hysteria that she had not heard of before: neurasthenia. 

Neurasthenia, now categorized as an ill-defined medical condition, was once associated with emotional distress in men. Thomas gathered information about neurasthenia through primary sources by physician and neurologist Dr. Charles Loomis Dana, located in the New York Academy of Medicine archives. She focused her inquiries on investigating why doctors of the late 1800s coined the term neurasthenia and the implications of differentiating this illness from hysteria, an illness thought of as exclusive to women. Symptoms of neurasthenia included fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, and irritability. The prevalence of mental issues such as these among affluent white men led medical experts to believe that neurasthenia was the direct result of an overload of sensory input that came with the excessive stress of the high-achieving jobs white men typically held at the time, such as professors or doctors. Problems in mental health were also seen as a possible result of post-traumatic stress syndrome from the Civil War. Treatment for neurasthenia consequently included shortening work hours, getting more sleep, and avoiding possible sources of stress altogether.

In contrast to the aforementioned treatment that Thomas discovered, she noted that “hysterical” women were confined to isolated rooms and allowed contact only with their physicians. The disparity between treatment for men with neurasthenia and women with hysteria is undeniable, proving to be  a significant finding that opens doors for further research on gender-specific treatments. Furthermore, Thomas theorizes because of their competition for clientele, gynecologists and neurologists had differing opinions on the source of this disease in women; they argued whether there was a mental cause or a physical one. Ultimately, women were often surgically treated as opposed to being provided with proper mental healthcare, as the root cause of their hysteria was seen as a biological issue inherent to being a woman. As a result, the ovaries were often removed in a surgery called salpingo-oophorectomy.

Thomas points out that gender-based medical treatment has unfortunately manifested in a modern way and is still very prevalent in the United States. She notes that unfair medical treatment is often seen in unnecessary reproductive surgeries like hysterectomies, and in the way that birth control is used as the default prescription for people with uteruses for mental health problems. 

Thomas continues to study the various forms of discrimination rooted in American medicinal practices, as well as further links between mental and physical or reproductive health. She plans to write and publish a 25–50 page essay on the research she has conducted, and present it at a thesis seminar for Fordham’s Mannion Society, a distinguished society that encourages outstanding history majors to conduct intensive research projects. After graduation, Thomas plans to pursue a doctoral degree in history, apply for fellowships, and remain a journalist in NYC. 

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