Electrotherapy and the Nervous Self in Nineteenth-Century Germany

Andreas Killen

in Berlin Electropolis

Published by University of California Press

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780520243620
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520931633 | DOI:
Electrotherapy and the Nervous Self in Nineteenth-Century Germany

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This chapter examines the nineteenth-century origins of the link between nervousness and the electrical method. It argues that prior to the 1870s there was little belief in the somatic nature of, or in the possibility of treating, nervous illness. The appearance in that decade of a neurologically anchored disease picture was closely bound up with the discovery of electricity's value in treating nervous ailments. That decade also marked the appearance of a new type of patient—the male, middle-class “brain worker” suffering from an assortment of nervous complaints, for whom the neurasthenic diagnosis was relatively free of stigma and for whom the electrotherapeutic apparatus was invested with a welcome scientific aura. Focusing on the world of Berlin nerve medicine, the chapter traces the construction of a new somatic model of nervous illness in the 1870s and 1880s, before going on to describe a growing crisis in this model, which came to a head in the 1890s. It concludes by gesturing toward the later use, during World War I, of a form of electrotherapy explicitly conceptualized as a type of suggestive, disciplinary treatment, one that allowed the doctor, through coercive means, to gain control over the patient's will.

Keywords: nervousness; electrical method; electricity; neurasthenic diagnosis; Berlin; nervous illness

Chapter.  13646 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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