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History of Neurology and Psychiatry: Sewing Machine, Tabes Dorsalis, and Ovarian Hysteria

Author(s): Detlef Claus

Hysteria was the Sphinx of nervous disorders. In ancient times the cause of hysteria was supposed to be sited in the womb. However the French Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot favoured the ovaries as the site of the origin of hysteria, and he recommended the therapeutic compression of the ovaries in order to terminate hysterical fits. To this end, the treatment of hysteria in women was carried out by the surgical removal of one ovary. This surgical intervention was not without risk in the 19th century, but more to the point it did not help the patients. Most German Neurologists doubted this “hysteric ovary” theory, but it was not until after 1901 that Steinhausen was able to prove by statistical analysis, that the “hysteric” ovary did not exist at all. Statistical data analysis also helped to support the connection between Syphilis and Tabes dorsalis, which usually became clinically manifest several years after infection. In those days neither cerebrospinal fluid analysis nor serology were available. Apart from several nonspecific suspected causes of Tabes - it was the use of the newly invented sewing machine that came under suspicion as the trigger of Tabes dorsalis.

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