The Doctor Who Prescribed More Quiet Time

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By Ken Zurski

Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell

In the late 1800’s, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell came up with a treatment for those suffering from mental and physical exhaustion.

The “Rest Cure,” as it was called, was a radical 6 to 8 week program that consisted of bed confinement and a special diet, like drinking heavy milk fats. The most important feature of Mitchell’s plan, however, was an environment of relative quiet and relaxation. No physical activity allowed. None. Even speaking was discouraged. And walking – forbidden.

Patients, mostly women, were ordered to limit any movement while in bed, usually left alone for long stretches, and dependent on others to wash and feed them. Mitchell believed the inactivity or “rest” increased the patient’s weight and blood flow.

He also dabbled in electrical therapy.

Mitchell was no quack. He had a degree from a respected Philadelphia medical institution and became a specialist in neurology, a relatively new science. Eventually his brain work led to helping Civil War veterans who suffered from nervous maladies. He is known to have coined the phrase,”phantom limb,”referring to the recurring sensation of a lost body part due to injury or amputation.

Mitchell’s work was both groundbreaking and experimental. But mental illness was still undefined and many women sought answers for their incessant tiredness and melancholy moods.

Writer Virginia Wolfe was one. She followed Mitchell’s plan, but later ridiculed 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,” she wrote.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Another writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman went even further. She wrote a scathing story about the treatment that caused her to “go insane.”

Gilman’s short story, titled “The Yellow Paper,” was based on a character who unsuccessfully goes through the “Rest Cure.” The “yellow paper” in the title refers to  the wallpaper in the room, which comes to life and mutates into various shapes and sizes, slowly driving the sheltered patient insane. “The whole thing goes horizontally,
too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction.”

Upon hearing of Gilman’s criticisms, Mitchell’s advice back to her was twofold: Get more rest, he implied, or in essence, stop writing.

The bickering aside, Mitchell’s reputation was solid. The painful hand and foot condition, Erythromelagia, was originally named Mitchell’s Disease after him. Even Sigmund Freud’s famous work factors into Mitchell’s legacy.

Some claim the “Rest Cure” was the inspiration for Freud’s psychoanalytic couch.

Sigmund Freud’s office and psychoanalytic couch

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