Beyond “The Yellow Wallpaper”: Silas Weir Mitchell, Doctor and Poet

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we are sharing poems from our collection throughout April.

Today, Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914) is best known as the purveyor of the Rest Cure, made infamous by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.” But while he was alive, he was renowned as a pioneering doctor of nervous diseases and a successful author.

Mitchell began his medical career researching rattlesnake venom. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he shifted focus, beginning work as a contract surgeon at Philadelphia’s Turner’s Lane Hospital, specializing in nervous diseases.

"Ward at the Civil War Hospital." In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

“Ward at the Civil War Hospital.” In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

Here, he treated and studied patients with nervous system injuries and syndromes, including one he named causalgia (a form of neuropathic pain). These studies informed his numerous pamphlets and books and helped establish his reputation as a father of American neurology.1–3 After the war, Mitchell continued his research at the Philadelphia Orthopaedic Hospital and Infirmary for Nervous Diseases. He determined that eyestrain could cause headache, and also discovered the rare vascular pain disorder erythromelalgia, or Weir Mitchell’s disease.1

Dr. Mitchell examining a Civil War veteran at the Clinic of the Orhopaedic Hospital, Philadelphia. In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

“Dr. Mitchell examining a Civil War veteran at the Clinic of the Orthopaedic Hospital, Philadelphia.” In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

More controversially, Mitchell also developed the Rest Cure, a treatment for the now passé diagnoses of neurasthenia (physical and mental exhaustion) and hysteria. Women most often received the Rest Cure, which typically involved six to eight weeks of isolation, bed rest, a high calorie diet, massage, and electrotherapy.4 Though the Rest Cure seems problematic to modern eyes, it was an accepted and popular practice for decades, seen as a valuable alternative to drug treatment.3

And what about men experiencing neurasthenia? For them, Mitchell developed the West Cure. Men—including Walt Whitman and Theodore Roosevelt—were sent West to “engage in vigorous physical activity … and to write about the experience.”5 The different treatments used for the same diagnosis—neurasthenia—speak volumes to how differently men and women can be viewed and medicalized.5

The Sargent portrait of Dr. Mitchell. In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

“The Sargent portrait of Dr. Mitchell.” In Burr, Weir Mitchell: His Life and Letters, 1929.

In addition to his medical research and private practice, Mitchell also enjoyed a career as an author. He published numerous short stories, 19 novels, a biography of George Washington, and 7 books of poetry.3 We have one of these poetry books, A Psalm of Deaths and Other Poems (available in full online), in our collection. We feature two poems from the volume here.

When Mitchell wrote “Of Those Remembered” in 1899, he was no stranger to loss: he had experienced the death of his father (1858), his first wife (1862), his mother (1872), and his sister (1874) in quick succession, along with the deaths of so many Civil War soldiers.2

Of Those Remembered

There is no moment when our dead lose power;
Unsignaled, unannounced they visit us.
Who calleth them I know not. Sorrowful,
They haunt reproachfully some venal hour
In days of joy, and when the world is near,
And for a moment scourge with memories
The money changers of the temple-soul.
In the dim space between two gulfs of sleep,
Or in the stillness of the lonely shore,
They rise for balm or torment, sweet or sad,
And most are mine where, in the kindly woods,
Beside the child like joy of summer streams,
The stately sweetness of the pine hath power
To call their kindred comforting anew.
Use well thy dead. They come to ask of thee
What thou hast done with all this buried love,
The seed of purer life? Or has it fallen unused
In stony ways and brought thy life no gain?
Wilt thou with gladness in another world
Say it has grown to forms of duty done
And ruled thee with a conscience not thine own?
Another world! How shall we find our dead?
What forceful law shall bring us face to face?
Another world! What yearnings there shall guide?
Will love souls twinned of love bring near again?
And that one common bond of duty held
This living and that dead, when life was theirs?
Or shall some stronger soul, in life revered,
Bring both to touch, with nature’s certainty,
As the pure crystal atoms of its kind
Draws into fellowship of loveliness?

The volume closes with a poem perfect for National Poetry Month: “Of a Poet” (1886).

Of a Poet
Written for a child

He sang of brooks, and trees, and flowers,
Of mountain tarns, of wood-wild bowers
The wisdom of the starry skies,
The mystery of childhood’s eyes,
The violet’s scent, the daisy’s dress
The timid breeze’s shy caress
Whilst England waged her fiery wars
He praised the silence of the stars,
And clear and sweet as upland rills
The gracious wisdom of her hills.
Save once when Clifford’s fate he sang,
And bugle-like his lyric rang,
He prized the ways of lowly men,
And trod, with them, the moor and fen.
Fair Nature to this lover dear
Bent low to whisper or to hear
The secrets of her sky and earth,
In gentle Words of golden Worth.

References

1. Silas Weir Mitchell, Papers, 1788; 1850-1928; 1949. Available at: http://www.collegeofphysicians.org/FIND_AID/hist/histswm1.htm. Accessed April 7, 2016.

2. Bailey P. Silas Weir Mitchell, 1829-1914. National Academy of Sciences; 1958. Available at: http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/mitchell-silas.pdf. Accessed April 7, 2016.

3. Todman DH. History of Neuroscience: Silas Weir Mitchell (1829-1914). IBRO Hist Neurosci. 2008. Available at: http://ibro.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Mitchell-Silas-Weir.pdf. Accessed April 7, 2016.

4. Science Museum, London. Rest cure. Brought to Life. Available at: http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/restcure. Accessed April 7, 2016.

5. Stiles A. Go rest, young man. Monit Psychol. 2012;43(1):32. Available at: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/go-rest.aspx. Accessed April 7, 2016.