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Copy of Dr S. Weir Mitchell and "The Yellow Wallpaper"

Historical context for "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Explains the rest cure treatment

Katy Kincannon

on 19 November 2013

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Transcript of Copy of Dr S. Weir Mitchell and "The Yellow Wallpaper"

At first patient is allowed to do nothing at all for up to 5 weeks.
Some patients were not allowed to roll over or use the bathroom during this period
Patients were fed by nurses who chopped up food to reduce chewing effort.
Eventually the patient is allowed to leave bed for a few hours a day,but in extreme cases could remain confined to bed for .6-9 weeks.
By Charlotte Perkins Gilman
The Yellow Wallpaper
What is it about?
Why did she write it?
Silas Weir Mitchell
The Yellow Wallpaper is
about the effects of
confinement on the
narrator’s mental health.

Without any outside
stimulation she becomes
obsessed with the wallpaper
as she slips into psychosis.
Where did the idea for “The Yellow Wallpaper”
come from?
After dealing with depression for several years, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was sent to see a highly regarded physician specializing in nervous disorders, Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. ("Why I Wrote")

Gilman wrote, “This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure”. “I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.”("Why I Wrote")
Gilman wrote, "It was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy, and it worked." ("Why I Wrote")
He became well known for his "rest cure" treatment. This model spread quickly through the medical community.
What was the Weir
Mitchell Rest Cure?
Mitchell's treatment consisted of 5 components:
In her autobiography she wrote, "the real purpose of the story was to reach Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, and convince him of the error of his ways" (The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman 88)
Extreme Bed Rest
Dietary Changes
Extreme Bed Rest
Mitchell removed many his patients from their homes during treatment. The rest had a professional nurse brought in to ensure isolation from family and friends.
He wrote in Fat and Blood, “It is needful to disentangle them from the meshes of old habits and to remove them from contact with those who have been the willing slaves of their caprices.”
Patients were given no control of their own time, visits, walks, and even being allowed to look out the window was controlled by a schedule set by their Doctor.
Most patients were not allowed to read or write. Those who were allowed were limited to less than 2 hours a day.
Why did Mitchell believe in the “rest cure”?
Mitchell noticed that patients with mental disorders were frequently pale, gaunt, and had low appetites. ("Fat and Blood" 70)
This led him to believe that nervous disorders might be caused by anemia. ("Fat and Blood" 72)
He believed increasing weight by reducing calories burned, and increasing calories consumed was the cure. He believed extreme bed rest and a strict diet was the best way to accomplish this. (Poirier 21)
To ensure compliance with this extreme rest, he isolated his patients from friends, family and anything intellectually stimulating.(Poirier 20)
He used massage and electrical muscle stimulation to prevent muscle atrophy associated with long term bed rest. ("Fat and Blood" 80-81)
He blamed treatment failures on the patients; Those who did not recover must not have been following his orders. (Poirier 22)
"[Mitchell] sent me home with solemn advice to "live as domestic a life as far as possible," to "have but two hours' intellectual life a day," and "never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again" as long as I lived."
-Charlotte Perkins Gilman("Why I Wrote")
“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”
-Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway(Woolf 111)
Were Mitchell and his Rest Cure sexist?
Patients were predominantly women. Mitchell did describe treatment of a few men, but it never went to the extremes of isolation and inactivity as with women (Poirier 20)
Throughout his writings, Mitchell showed his belief that women were inferior, intellectually and emotionally. It is important to note that these beliefs were pervasive at that time. (Poirier 18-19)
He stated that he believed women should avoid intellectual pursuits because they might intefere with their "wife duties". (Poirier 18)
He once said, "I wish every woman could attain to the best that men have," adding, "I wish for her whatever in the loftiest training helps to make her as a mother more capable and as a wife more helpful." (Doctor and Patient 150)
What effect did "The Yellow Wallpaper" have?
Gilman wrote, "It has, to my knowledge, saved one woman from a similar fate--so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered" ("Why I Wrote")
Gilman claimed that the story had an effect on Mitchell("Why I Wrote"), but this is disputed as nothing in Mitchell or his colleagues writings support this.(Poirier 26).
Even if it had no effect on Mitchell, it may have helped to sway public opinion and draw attention to mistreatment in mental health treatment.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. "Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper". The Forerunner. October 1913. Print.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography. New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935. Print.


Mitchell, Silas Weir. "Doctor and Patient". Philadelphia. J.B. LIPPINCOTT & CO. 1888. Print.

Poirier, Suzanne. "The Weir Mitchell Rest Cure: doctor and patients". Women's Studies. Vol 10. 1983. Print.

"Silas Weir Mitchell". New International Encyclopedia. Vol 13. New York. 1909.
Works Cited
("Fat and Blood"
("Fat and Blood" 62-63)
("Fat and Blood" 50-57)
Was a physician treating mental illnesses during the Civil War
At the end of the war he became a specialist in neurology
In 1877 he published "Fat and Blood" detailing his theories on the causes and treatments for nervous disorders
("Silas Weir Mitchell")
Mitchell's literature describes many different diet regiments. One thing they all have in common in the heavy use of milk. (Poirier 21)
Most patients subsisted on little more than milk for their entire treatment. (Poirier 21)
Mitchell was the first physician to consider massage therapeutic (Poirier 21)
He prescribed full-body messages, paying particular attention to the feet and abdomen.("Fat and Blood" 80-81)
The main reason for the messages was to prevent muscle atrophy associated with long bed red.("Fat and Blood" 82)
Not the kind of shock therapy we think of today, its purpose was to exercise muscles
Mitchell applied low voltage directly to muscles, causing them to contract, similar to a TENS machine.
This treatment was reserved for patients at risk of muscle atrophy
(Poirier 21)
Full transcript