Meet the "Queen of Hysterics" Who Was Freud's Early Muse

Proving that fame isn't a good measure of success, Marie "Blanche" Wittman, became known both locally and historically as the Queen of Hysterics. Her "medical demonstrations" were a kind of medical reality show — one that inspired the work of Sigmund Freud.

But the story begins with a man named Jean-Martin Charcot. Given, an appointment as the director of the Salpetriere women's hospital in the late 1800s (a facility for mental patients and permanent invalids), he turned what most people would consider a mediocre stepping-stone into the springboard for modern neurology. Many of Charcot's patients suffered from diseases of the nerves - the literal nerves, not the figurative nerves. They gave Charcot a chance to study how the physiological deterioration of the nerves physically affects the body.


Charcot was dedicated almost to the point of fanaticism. When he discovered that a household servant was trying to hide a palsy so she could keep her job, he diagnosed her and kept her on, patiently tolerating the fact that she often broke things around the house. Don't get too choked up. One of the reasons he did this was so he could perform an autopsy on her when she died, to check his diagnosis and explore the physical effects of the disease.

Charcot is rightly respected as a pioneering neurologist. (What's known in America as Lou Gehrig's Disease is known in France as Charcot's disease, as he was the first to systematically describe it.) As rigorous as he tried to be, he sometimes didn't employ strict enough standards while testing his hypotheses. This is why one of the treatments he endorsed was the application of magnetic metals in order to treat paralysis in limbs. People said they felt better, and he believed them.

He also believed them when they said they felt worse, which is why he eventually began public demonstrations during which he hypnotized hysterics. Charcot, to his credit, grounded his research in physiology and physical responses. He believed that hysterics had physical symptoms that could not be faked, including an increased sensitivity in parts of their bodies, and sleep disorders. You might recognize those as symptoms that can be faked. What can also be faked is an increased tendency to succumb to hypnotism - another sign of hysteria, according to Charcot.


Although Charcot, in many ways, attempted to stay objective, he was interested in acclaim and had a bit of showmanship in him. He would invite medical people in to an auditorium and bring out hysterics. Hypnotizing them, he conducted various demonstrations, lecturing about the affliction and hypnosis's ability to treat it. To be fair to him, interest in hysteria and possible treatments for it was high, and medical people wanted to see how he treated hysteric patients. Still, the demonstrations became shows, and the patients became performers. No one was more famous than Marie "Blanche" Wittman.

Wittman had come to the hospital to be a nurse. The 18-year-old had had a difficult life. Her mother and siblings were dead, and her father was in another mental institution. After a series of traumatic events, she became by turns mute and paralyzed, or thrown around by violent convulsions. Charcot took notice, and Wittman transitioned from carer to patient. Charcot took over much of her life, giving her many physical tests for hysteria, and eventually treating her with inhalant drugs, "ovarian compressions," magnets, and hypnosis.


She performed spectacularly under hypnosis. Going into convulsions on cue, becoming calm on cue, and following Charcot's every direction, she was known under the pseudonym "Blanche," and later under the title "Queen of Hysterics." Her shows were more popular, and more reliable, than those of any other patient. She was sometimes told that a blank piece of paper was a naked picture of her, whereupon she would snatch it away from the holder and tear it up. The most popular demonstrations were when Charcot told her that harmless water was poison, and directed her to give it to a randomly-chosen person in the room. She did as he instructed.

Charcot was one of the most famous neurologists in the world, and anyone who wanted to study nerves and medicine came to him sooner or later. This population included a young and skeptical Sigmund Freud. Freud studied under Charcot, and watched Blanche perform. However, hedrew a different conclusion when it came to Blanche's affliction. Not believing that hysteria was linked to the body, he decided that it was linked to the mind and the rest is very well-known history.


Marie's history is less well-known. She was a hysteric until death, but the death wasn't her own. Charcot died in 1893. From then on, "Blanche" never experienced another convulsion.

[Via The Mother of Maladies, Jean-Martin Charcot, Little Demon in the City of Light]


Share This Story

Get our newsletter