Used as early as 1829, the ‘ medical ‘ term neurasthenia to describe nervous weakness was quickly taken up in America forty years later when neurologist George M. Beard formally introduced the concept of ‘ nervous exhaustion ‘.
With symptoms that included anxiety, headache, palpitations, high blood pressure and mild depression, neurasthenia became associated with the pressures suffered by middle-class businessmen, politicians, and others sold on the American Dream. Indeed, it was nicknamed ‘Americanitis ‘ and claimed President Roosevelt among its sufferers. William James, Proust, Wilfred Owen and Virginia Woolf were also neurasthenic. By the 1920s it had definitely become a fashionable condition among certain groups in Western society ( it was virtually unknown among the labouring classes, assembly workers and shop assistants) and its popularity engendered a whole industry of quack cures. In an earlier Jot we learned that the regular imbibing of a nerve tonic could banish neurasthenia. Mrs Woolf swore by lengthy ‘rest cures ‘. But in this advert from a January 1921 issue of the British magazine The Review of Reviewswe are shown how electricity administered through the Pulvermacher Appliance might be the answer.
But before the poor sucker, sorry, sufferer , was asked to shell out to The Pulverbacher Electrologial Institute ( established 1848) of Ludgate Hill, London, he/she was asked the following questions:
Are you nervous, timid or indecisive ?
Do you lack self confidence?
Do you dread open or closed spaces?
Are you wanting in Will Power?
Are you ‘fidgety’, restless or sleepless?
Do you blush or turn pale readily?
Do you shrink from strange company?
Are you subject to sudden impulses?
Do you crave for stimulants or drugs?
If the reader registered a yes to all, or some of these, then they, according to the advert, were undoubtably suffering from neurasthenia, though it was more likely that they were a shy, nervous, agoraphobe or claustrophobe lacking in confidence who blushed easily and enjoyed smoking or taking other stimulants in whatever form. In other words, they were normal human beings, despite the fact that they ( again according to the advert) may also have been afflicted with such burdensome symptoms as ‘ indigestion, liver troubles, constipation, palpitation, loss of appetite, and excess of appetite’.
If anyone reading the advert was taken in by all this they would probably believe what followed. They were told that it was ‘ electricity ‘ that was ‘ the only force that naturally supplies this deficiently of Nerve Force ‘ . Potential purchasers of the Pulverbacher Appliance were assured that it was ‘light, easy and comfortable to wear’ and delivered no shocks, but simply ‘supplied the nerve centres with a continuous flow of electricity ‘. How exactly this was done was not explained. Interested readers were then invited to fill out a coupon and send it in order to acquire a copy of the Institute’s Guide to Health and Strength. They could even obtain a free consultation by knocking on the door of 56, Ludgate Hill.
Sigmund Freud, who was a physician by training, did recognise neurasthenia as a genuine neurological condition, but condemned electrotherapy as a ‘ pretense treatment ‘. We don’t know whether Virginia Woolf seriously considered wearing a Pulverbacher Appliance, but perhaps it did cross her mind. Incidentally, although the term neurasthenia was dropped by Western psychiatrists many decades ago, it still survives in Asian medicine.