The Legacy of Silas Weir Mitchell/Reply

Article excerpt

Biderman and Herman (1) recently assessed the contribution of Silas Weir Mitchell to psychiatry and noted that he was a mentor to the psychiatrists of his time. Grob (2), in commenting on this assessment, saw Mitchell as more of a social critic.

Both assessments failed to mention the tremendously oppressive nature of his treatments for women of the time. Biderman and Herman noted that Mitchell's "rest cure" brought him fame and fortune (1, p. 33). His rest cure lor women involved complete seclusion in his clinic with an emphasis in Mitchell's published works on rest and diet (Mitchell, 1877).

However, accounts from women who underwent this rest cure make it quite clear that he took women who were unhappy in the traditional roles of wife and mother, whom he saw as selfish and in need of moral education, and brain-washed them to become passive and accepting orders from men - himself and their husbands.

Charlotte Perkins oilman, who underwent this rest cure, was sent home with orders to live her life as a wife and mother, have her child with her at all times, and never touch a pen, brush or pencil as long as she lived - that is, never to write or paint. oilman went home and came near to a complete psychiatric breakdown. Luckily, she had the strength to leave her husband and embark on a career as a leading American feminist (3, 4). It never occurred to Mitchell that the traditional female role in society might be in need of change.

Mitchell sought to make people conform to traditional societal norms and values and to be content with their oppression. He gave no consideration to the possibility that the roles might be unsuitable for his patients or that society needed changing.


1. Biderman A, Herman J. Was Silas Weir Mitchell really a psychiatrist? Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sei 2003;40:29-35.

2. Grob GN. Commentary. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sei 2003;40:35-39.

3. Lane AJ. To Herland and beyond. New York: Pantheon, 1990.

4. Lester D. The rest cure of Silas Weir Mitchell in the 19th Century and Japanese Morita Therapy. Bull Division 1994;29:51-53.

David Lester, PhD

Psychology Program, The Richard

Stockton College of New Jersey,

POB 195, Jimmie Leeds Road,

Pomona, NJ 08240-0195, U.S.A.


J. H. Plumb's distinction between the past and history is especially relevant to Lester's approach to the career of Silas Weir Mitchell. History, Plumb insisted, is not the past, even though they share common elements. History represents an effort to see things as they actually were, and from this study to formulate processes of social change which are acceptable on historical grounds and none other. …