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Misunderstanding Convulsions

Treatment of Insanity, 1846

Doctors didn’t understand what caused many psychological problems or mental illnesses, and usually relied on a “best guess” approach to anything without an immediate cause and effect. A doctor at the neurological unit of Boston City Hospital discussed the case of a boy experiencing convulsions. He had shown signs of a cerebral injury at birth, and later developed grand mal seizures. He was also bitten by a dog as a child, and began to have convulsions that usually occurred when he saw a dog. The doctor felt that emotion (in this case, fear of a dog), was the precipitating factor in the patient’s attacks.

The doctor brought up other instances of an emotional cause for convulsions. A 17-year-old girl suffered her first grand mal attack within two hours of being forced to break off an engagement. The doctor also described another physician’s initial treatment for a 12-year-old girlĀ  who had had cranial trauma and then seizures earlier in life: a regime of high enemas. Later, when the girl was 18, the doctors tried a “nine months trial of dehydration” which made her condition worse.