A Winter Tale from Weir Mitchell

We aren’t yet done with the Twelve Days of Christmas, so I think another winter tale is a fair offering!

Today I give you The Autobiography of a Quack, by the author and neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. The story first appeared anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly in 1867. It’s got just a hint of Christmas spice, and a touch of a Christmas ghost — maybe. I suspect the ghostly touch was more a response to literary fashion of the time, rather than any strong interest in the supernatural on Dr. Mitchell’s part.

NewImageIllustration by Frederick C. Gordon for A Doctor of the Old School by Ian MacLaren, 1895
Project Gutenberg

Dr. Mitchell is known today for his early work describing phantom limb syndrome: the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still present. It’s often painful. He also was the first to describe causalgia, another injury-related pain syndrome associated with nerve damage.

During his lifetime, Dr. Mitchell was also well known for promoting the rest cure to treat “nervous diseases.” Neurasthenia, characterized by fatigue, anxiety, depression, headaches, and pain, was a diagnosis primarily given to women at the time — though supposedly William James’ nickname for the condition was “Americanitis” — ha! One of Dr. Mitchell’s patients was the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Apparently, her rest cure didn’t go so well: it was from that experience that she wrote her famous feminist weird tale, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Anyway. “The Autobiography of a Quack” is primarily Mitchell’s attack on what he considered to be the medical frauds of his day: homeopathy, patent medicine, and what at the time was called “eclectic medicine.” Eclectic medicine was an American version of herbalism, supposedly based on the traditional medical practices of Native American peoples. Mitchell also gets in some jabs at spiritualism and at the practice of wealthy people offering “bounties,” or paying poor people to serve in their place during the Civil War. The protagonist, Elias Sanderaft, is quite the scoundrel, and gets himself into all kind of sketchy deals. It’s a fairly amusing read.

The Project Gutenberg link above also features another short story, The Case of George Dedlow. Dr. Mitchell eventually published scholarly writings on causalgia and phantom limbs, but “The Case of George Dedlow” was his first attempt at describing these conditions, in a fictional milieu. The story is based on Dr. Mitchell’s experiences treating injured soldiers during the Civil War. He never intended to publish it, though he did lend the manuscript to a friend. That friend gave it to another friend, who sent it to The Atlantic. The first Dr. Mitchell heard of it was when the magazine sent him a check!

The Atlantic published the piece anonymously in 1866. It seems that the article was not clearly marked as fiction, so many readers believed that the events were true. Given that the story has a fairly silly spiritualist ending, I don’t imagine this pleased Dr. Mitchell too much. The Atlantic recently featured the story as part of their commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Enjoy, and best wishes for the coming New Year!

6 thoughts on “A Winter Tale from Weir Mitchell

  1. I’ve bookmarked this to read in the future. I haven’t heard of Dr. Mitchell (though I know about phantom limbs and neurasthenia). What you describe of his work is fascinating.

    1. I found out about him (and about “The Case of George Dedlow”) in Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations. The last chapter deals with phantom limb, and other “tactile,” for lack of a better term, hallucinations. Really interesting!

  2. Hi Nina,
    I only knew of Weir Mitchell from ‘research’ on The Yellow Wallpaper, which I’ve read several times now and consider a masterpiece. I had no idea Mitchell also wrote. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Yes, he managed to be fairly eminent in his medical field(s) and have a bit of a literary career at the same time. Impressive. I found a Christmas tale that he wrote as well, but I’m saving it for next year 😉

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