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Weir Mitchell, S

Category: Scientist

Silas Weir Mitchell (1829 –1914) was an American physician and writer known for his discovery of causalgia, now known as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), and also known as Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome (AMPS) -  a chronic systemic disease characterized by severe pain, swelling, and changes in the skin.  His medical texts include Injuries of Nerves and Their Consequences (1872) and Fat and Blood (1877). Mitchell's disease (erythromelalgia) is named after him. He also coined the term Phantom Limb during his study of an amputee [phantom limbs are discussed on this website].

During the Civil War he had charge of nervous injuries and maladies at Turners Lane Hospital, Philadelphia, and at the close of the war became a specialist in neurology. In this field, Weir Mitchell's name became prominently associated with his introduction of the rest cure, subsequently taken up by the medical world, for nervous diseases, particularly neurasthenia and hysteria.   The treatment consisted primarily in isolation, confinement to bed, dieting, electrotherapy and massage; and was popularly known as 'Dr Diet and Dr Quiet’, but like many doctors in this area he also became interested in the effect of drugs of various sorts and as a consequence experimented on himself.

 

His treatment was not without its critics. Both the enforced isolation and particularly the use of electrotherapy have been heavily criticised since.   It was used on Virginia Woolf who wrote a savage satire of it: "you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve".

As a writer, he wrote medical textbooks on subjects like rattlesnake venom, hygiene, neurasthenia etc, but also wrote books for children, several volumes of poetry and some prose books.  In 1863, for example, he wrote a short story, combining physiological and psychological problems, entitled "The Case of George Dedlow".   "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a short story in which the narrator is driven insane by her rest cure!  His historical novels, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897), The Adventures of François (1898) and The Red City (1909), were very popular fiction in their day.

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