Women’s health issues in Alcott’s time: Lizzie’s diagnosis and its repercussions

Research is addictive. It’s a lot like writing, taking you on a journey far beyond where you imagined you would go. Researching Elizabeth Alcott’s life is taking me on that unexpected journey. In the next few posts, I will take you there too, into the world of nineteenth century women’s health issues.

Just a note that I am just learning about these things and would very much appreciate your comments as I know many of you know far more than I do!

Lizzie’s diagnosis

transcendental wife cynthia barton0001In Transcendental Wife, Cynthia Barton writes of the doctor’s final diagnosis of Lizzie’s illness: “atrophy or consumption of the nervous system, with great development of hysteria.” (pg. 161, excerpt taken from Abba’s journal in January of 1858). What in the world does that mean?

The root of a woman’s ills

women and health in america first editionTo understand this diagnosis, one needs to know the foundation for all diagnoses of women’s ailments: “medical analysis of a woman began and ended with consideration of an organ unique to her, namely her uterus.” (from Women and Health in America, First Edition, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt, from the article, “The Fashionable Diseases”: Women’s Complaints and Their Treatment in Nineteenth-Century America” by Ann Douglas Wood). (pg. 223)

It was supposed that women were subjected to twice the number of diseases as men simply because they have a womb. A certain Dr. Dewees, professor of midwifery at the University of Pennsylvania wrote, “Her uterus exercises a ‘paramount power’ over her physical and moral system, and its sway is ‘no less whimsical than potent.’ Furthermore, ‘she is constantly liable to irregularities in her menstrua, and menaced severely by their consequences.” (pg. 224)

matteduterusTherefore, the root of Lizzie Alcott’s illness according to Dr. Christian Geist (a well-known practitioner of homeopathy), was her uterus.

It’s no wonder Dr. Geist came up with his diagnosis considering the symptoms commonly attributed to the uterus: loss of weight, peevish irritability, hysterical fits of crying and insomnia, constipation, indigestion, headaches and backaches. (ibid)

Prescribed treatment of hysteria (be forewarned!)

Treatment was “local,” beginning with an internal investigation of the womb. When Lizzie was examined by Dr. Geist, it was likely she was put through such an internal. Wood writes that it did not matter whether or not the symptoms were directly related to the uterus: “her uterus might well be subjected to local treatment in the period 1830-1860.” (“The Fashionable Diseases,” pg. 224) Cynthia Barton writes that Lizzie “was, in fact, much agitated by the doctor’s presence and wept all the time he was there.” (Transcendental Wife, pg. 161).

The internal was just the first step in treating hysteria. There were three other stages though not all were applied each time: (warning—this may make for difficult reading)

  1. Manual investigation
  2. “Leeching” (actual leeches attached)
  3. “Injections” (of a variety of elements including water, milk, linseed tea, etc.—you get the idea)
  4. “Cauterization” (application of nitrate of silver, hydrate of potassa, or the use of a white-hot instrument) (“The Fashionable Diseases,” ibid)

Did Lizzie receive this treatment?

Dr. Geist’s diagnosis of hysteria was made in January of 1858; Lizzie died in March of that year. She was a mere 84-1/2 pounds when he saw her (from Lizzie’s letter to Bronson, December 13, 1857, Houghton Library MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) and MS AM 2745 (71)). There is no mention in family journals or letters of any followup from Dr. Geist’s initial visit. I would speculate that Abba, utterly committed to homeopathic medicine (and also very doubtful of the benefits of medicine–see below), wanted to spare Lizzie the suffering that would come of such treatment.

Like a B-grade horror movie!

As a complete novice to women’s health issues and their treatment in the nineteenth century, I was greatly disturbed; reading Ann Douglas Wood’s essay was like watching a gruesome horror movie. I could not comprehend how supposedly educated men calling themselves doctors actually bought into such a line of thinking–to me it defies logic. Medicine was indeed at a primitive stage often inflicting more pain than it cured. It is no wonder that Abba, exasperated at one point at the failure of doctors to even reach a diagnosis, called the whole medical process “a prolonged Guess.” (from Abba’s letter to brother Sam, August 25, 1857, MS Am 1130.9 (25)).

prolonged guess letter snippet

Abba’s letter to brother Sam, August 25, 1857, MS Am 1130.9 (25), Houghton Library, Harvard University

In many ways, the guessing game exists today as well, especially when it comes to mental health. I recently watched a video of a presentation by Debbie Nathan, author of Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case (proving that the multiple personalities were faked) where she documented the experimental drug use that patients endured from their psychiatrists; it sounded as crazy as the treatment nineteenth century women received for their ills. Are things really that much better today? It’s hard to say. I would venture to say there is still a lot of guessing in medicine.

Exploring other health issues

In briefly exploring hysteria, I then thought about PMS and puberty. What would puberty have been like for the Alcott girls? Louisa gives us a taste of hers in her journal which I will explore in the next post. Women and Health in America featured two essays about menstruation and puberty for young women during Louisa’s time and I will share a summary of those articles.

And again, if you are knowledgeable about women and health in Louisa’s time, please chime in!

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Fiction or non-fiction? How should I tell the story of Lizzie?

Note: Although I had promised a series of posts on women’s health in the nineteenth century, I need to postpone those posts until I clear up a problem with citing an important source. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, I thought I would share this with you.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Doing a book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott presents a problem: how do you get inside the head of someone who was so private? While one can speculate by “reading between the lines” when pouring over family letters, it’s hard to fully explore the private line in a biographical setting.

At one time, I was considering doing a fiction book (like Jeannine Atkins’ wonderful Little Woman in Blue) but decided against it because I am not a fiction writer. I read very little fiction, preferring biographies and essays. It seems to me one ought to be immersed in fiction to write fiction.

However, I did try my hand at it with a couple of attempts. This piece was going to be the introduction to a fiction book and I thought you’d like to see. I have another one, less finished, that I’ll show you in the next post.

I have to admit, I enjoyed writing these pieces. Maybe I will continue writing them if only to prime the pump for the real thing.

Here goes:

Prologue

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

Claire Danes as Beth March in Little Women

I’m hovering over my body laid out on the bed. Where has my hair gone? My face is so thin, hollow and pale. I look like a skeleton. At least the pain is gone. I see my mother and sister gazing up at me. There’s a look of wonder in their eyes although their cheeks are wet. Louisa is looking at Marmee and she’s saying, “What did you see?” I wonder where I am going, I hope it’s someplace with lots of flowers and sun. And music! Will I hear angels singing where I am going?

I thought I wanted to leave but now I’m not sure. The pain was terrible, even the ether didn’t help. Poor Father, he tried. I just couldn’t look at his face so consumed with sadness and worry. I just couldn’t look.
I don’t want to leave my family. Not just yet. I want to see what happens next. Will Anna marry John Pratt? From what she told me, he’s a very nice man. Funny too. Anna deserves someone nice.

Frank Thayer Merrill illustration of Amy March from Little WomenWill my little Abby May become a famous artist someday? I want to see! Her drawings and paintings are so wonderful. She loves pretty things just like I do but she knows how to capture and keep them forever on paper. I can only remember.

And Louy. My Lu. I shall miss her so. She made me feel alive. She was so unafraid and me, well, I never wanted to leave the house. She will write a great book one day, I imagine lots of great books. Her head is always so full of stories.

Frank Thayer Merrill's illustration of Marmee and the four sisters from Little Women, 1880 Roberts BrothersDear Marmee … oh Marmee, don’t cry! It wasn’t your fault. Those children, they were so sick. I wanted to help too. I wish I had been stronger, for you. You are my hero! How I wish I could sit in your lap right now, lean my head on your bosom and murmur “I love you.” Because I do. How could I not? You showed me what it means to be kind and giving. There was nothing you wouldn’t or couldn’t do.

Father, Father! You and I, we are one. I didn’t understand your words but your heart and mine, we were one. You were like Jesus to me. I wish I could snuggle close to you right now and tell you that. How I will miss your sweet, quiet voice. When you’d talk to me, it was like being outside in the sun, so warm, so peaceful.

lizzie alcott graveMy dear family! I have to leave now. God is good, I’m sure; He will let me watch over you. Keep my memory, let that console you. Come and visit me at Sleepy Hollow. Under the shade of the big elms we can be together.
I want to tell your story. My family, what a story! Lu, you have to tell it. I will help you. I will fill your mind with sweet memories. Oh yes, I know, we had it hard sometimes. I remember that gnawing in my belly and the only thing to fill it was that dry graham. I never told Father but I didn’t like it. It was like eating paper. But it was so sweet how he used to shape it into my favorite animals. It didn’t make it taste any better but the love he put into it made it sweeter somehow.

Lu, please tell our story, won’t you? Walk with me through the years, through those funny plays you and Anna used to put on that had us laughing, crying and shouting for more. Encore! Now that I am gone from this earth, maybe I can get inside your mind and watch the birth of your stories. I was always amazed at how you could stew on stories, cooking them to perfection while chopping vegetables in the kitchen. That head of yours was always so busy!
I hope there are kittens in Heaven. Remember all my kittens? So soft and furry, I loved hearing them purr. Maybe I will see all my pussycats again, running around in Heaven.

Did you know what went on inside of me? I know, I wasn’t good at sharing. I had many thoughts, many feelings but I was afraid to share. You and Anna, you were so smart! You had so many great thoughts to share. Father and Mother, they liked listening to your journals. I know they wanted me to share too but I just couldn’t. I was selfish, clinging to them as I did. And our family, we had hard times. I didn’t want to add to that with my little crosses. Sometimes those crosses got heavy though. This last cross was especially heavy. I died on this cross. Does that mean now that I am like Jesus?

What will God look like? Everything is very bright around me. How I wish I could tell you, shout to the world how happy I feel at this moment even as I say goodbye to you. Oh but dear family, I am not gone from your hearts.

Lu, I know you are the storyteller but I want to tell our story too. Now that I am well, I am free. For some reason, I no longer feel afraid to share what’s inside of me. I have so much that I want to tell you. May I tell you?

Marmee, Lu, there’s a mist around me, is that what you see? You are watching me rise up to Heaven, just as Father said I would. Isn’t God good to give you this glimpse of me, well, happy, ready to take on my brand new life. Father used to read the Holy Bible to us, remember? I’m glad he did that because I got to hear the word of God. It was hard to understand then but now I understand it all. I am rising up to God just like it says in the Bible: “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” I never knew what incense was; I think Father said it was like smoke. Smoke goes up into the air. But now I am a mist. Marmee, Louisa, you’re getting smaller and smaller. I wish I could reach out my arms to you for one last goodbye. My mist will stay with you, cover you like a sweet, light blanket on a summer’s night. Wrap myself around you. Remember me.

And I will remember you.

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An announcement followed by a discovery

As you can see from the teasers I’ve been posting lately, there is a lot coming down the road! Much of it is coming from an announcement I’d like to make.

The announcement

lizzie alcott2Now that the major work for my two books is behind me, I am dedicating my efforts towards my book on Elizabeth Sewall Alcott. It will be an in-depth biography making use of the many letters and journal entries from Lizzie herself and her family members. It will be about her life as well as her death–this shadow sister will finally emerge from the shadows. I am hoping to show the impact of this unassuming and quiet woman’s life on those around her including a brilliant philosopher and teacher, and a world-famous authoress.

Those of you who have been following this blog know of my love for Lizzie Alcott. I want to afford her a voice as there are so many Lizzies among us–women and men who give of themselves behind the scenes and in the end, leave behind wonderful legacies. Judging from the portrayals of Lizzie in the various Alcott biographies, not much is known about her. When I first started doing my research three years ago, I wondered how much I would actually find. It turns out (as with most things) that everything is in plain view if you are focused on looking for it.

This book will take several years to put together (my goal is to have it published by 2018 or 2019). I will be pursuing a traditional publisher but should it not be accepted, I will consider self-publishing. This is the work of my life.

I have to say that I am so grateful for the encouragement and the support I have gotten from so many of you. All writers doubt themselves and your words and kindly gestures have helped more than you can know.

One of you (and you know who you are, thank you!) bequeathed her Beth doll to me for encouragement and she now sits by my computer:

beth doll combined

Now for the discovery

As I continue my research, I will share things along the way that I find. One of the little things I’ve always wanted to read is the King’s Chapel funeral service that Abba insisted be used at Lizzie’s funeral. Eve LaPlante mentioned some of the details in her book, Marmee and Louisa:

marmee and louisaElizabeth Sewall Alcott’s last rites were held the following afternoon at home. Abigail asked Emerson, now in his fifties, Thoreau, not yet forty, and two younger men, John Pratt and the schoolteacher Frank Sanborn, to bear Elizabeth’s coffin from the house to Sleepy Hollow, a new cemetery that the A1cott girls had known as a picnic place. “We longed for dear Uncle Sam” to preside at the funeral, Louisa told a cousin, “but [Samuel Joseph] was too far away,” traveling in Italy, so the Rev. Dr. Huntington of Boston, for whom Abigail had worked, said the service. At her “urgent request” the minister read the simple King’s Chapel burial service that had been said for her three sisters, her brother Edward, her mother and father, and her grandparents. She expected it would be said for her, too. It includes portions of the Gospel of John, the 39th and 90th Psalms, and Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Louisa, Anna, and Abby May cast handfuls of earth on Lizzie’s coffin as the minister intoned, “For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God to take unto himself the soul of our deceased sister, we therefore commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; looking for the general resurrection in the last day ….” (pages 184-185)

I recently wrote to King’s Chapel and got in touch with one of their historians who sent me the full text of that service:

You can download the service by clicking on the link; you can see the entire third edition at archive.org.

women and health in america-512In my next post I will share some of the background reading I’ve been doing to prepare. Obviously I need to become familiar with health care for women in the nineteenth century and I look forward to sharing with you some of what I have learned from a compilation called Women and Health in America, edited by Judith Walzer Leavitt. I found it all quite compelling and look forward to sharing some thoughts with you.

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Call for papers: Summer Conversational Series 2016 at Orchard House

From Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House:

We are currently accepting proposals for our July 2016 Summer Conversational Series and Teacher Institute, Finding Beauty in the Humblest Things: Louisa May Alcott’s Literary Vision.  Deadline for submission is February 15.  Please include, with your one-page proposal, your title and a brief bio, and submit to ladams@louisamayalcott.org and jturnquist@louisamayalcott.org.

Call for proposals is featured below, and may also be found on our website, www.louisamayalcott.org.  Please feel free to forward this information to your friends and colleagues who may be interested in presenting or attending.

scs2016-cfp_final

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Coming attractions for 2016

Teasers for the new year … coming soon. :-)

beth doll combined

Beth doll, bequeathed to me by a special friend for inspiration

 

Beth doll, bequeathed to me by a friend for a special inspiration

My Christmas gift, and a great find.

 

how to study art cheaply3-560

May, the author and cheerleader

Reading this now ... eye-opening!

Reading this now … eye-opening!

Stay tuned!

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Christmas greetings to you in the spirit of Louisa May Alcott

Remembering the Spirit of Christmas from Little Men:

chp. 3 Christ the Good Man“Were they poor children?” asked Nat, wistfully.

“Yes, I think so; you see some haven’t got hardly any clothes on, and the mothers don’t look like rich ladies. He liked poor people, and was very good to them. He made them well, and helped them, and told rich people they must not be cross to them, and they loved Him dearly, dearly,” cried Demi, with enthusiasm.

“Was He rich?”

“Oh no! He was born in a barn, and was so poor He hadn’t any house to live in when He grew up, and nothing to eat sometimes, but what people gave Him, and He went round preaching to everybody, and trying to make them good, till the bad men killed Him.”

“What for?” and Nat sat up in his bed to look and listen, so interested was he in this man who cared for the poor so much.

“I’ll tell you all about it; Aunt Jo won’t mind;” and Demi settled himself on the opposite bed, glad to tell his favorite story to so good a listener.

Little Men, Chapter 3, Sunday

GIVING YOURSELVES TO THE DOWN-AND-OUT

If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places —
firm muscles, strong bones.

You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.

You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

Isaiah 58:10-12

from pages 78-79, Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message

Thank you to all my dear readers for another great year!

00 xmas card 2015-640

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Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message on sale through Christmas!

Check out Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message – on sale at 15% off through Christmas!

Available in large print as well as a the regular edition. Use the code ALCOTT during checkout http://www.portalstoprayer.com/alcott/

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