What History's Strangest "Female Disease" Looked Like

The sexist tradition of calling women "crazy" is alive and well today, but in the 1800's, women considered to be overly emotional could be diagnosed with an actual disorder: hysteria.
Symptoms of hysteria were generally pretty vague, but the most infamous one was simply having (gasp!) sexual desires. It was commonly accepted that healthy women just didn't get horny. Even more remarkably, it took the American Psychiatric Association until 1952 to drop the term "hysteria."
You likely know exactly how doctors treated this horrible malady: They started massaging ladies' genitals; the resulting "paroxysms" somehow seemed to ease symptoms and put women in a better mood. And thus, the vibrator was born. Hysteria's other physical symptoms — such as weakness, seizures, and blindness with no other medical cause — were separated from the sexual symptoms. And, these were later combined into a modern (but still controversial) diagnosis: conversion disorder.
In honor of the newly expanded Medical Heritage Library, we've compiled some of our favorite medical illustrations of 19th-century "hysterical" ladies, and the sometimes-bizarre treatments they underwent in doctors' search for a "cure." Click through to see the images, which are all taken from French physician Paul Regnard's book, Sorcellerie, Magnétisme, Morphinisme, Délire Des Grandeurs.
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The author explains that a hysterical woman could be put into a trance by being made to next to a strong tuning fork. Eventually, he says, her body would vibrate at the same frequency as the tuning fork — and she would fall asleep.
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Severe muscle contractions kept this patient's back completely rigid.
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One supposed side effect of hysteria was total-body anesthesia — women could not feel anything when suffering from it. Dr. Regnard recalls seeing one girl jump out of a four-story building and break her legs; she then laughed on the gurney and amused herself by pulling out pieces of her own bones.
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In this case, the first phase of the hysterical attack was quiet.
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This illustration depicts the arched back typical of those in the throes of severe muscle contractions. It's possible that some of what doctors called "hysteria" was actually epileptic seizures.
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Physicians believed the extreme muscle contractions could leave women paralyzed for hours in a pose reminiscent of crucifixion.
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How do you distract six hysterical women? With a loud, unexpected noise, apparently.