The hysterical anorexia epidemic in the French nineteenth-century

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The official birth of hysterical anorexia is attributed to the French alienist Ernest Charles Lasègue (1816-1883). Starting from his 1873 article, anorexia as a ‘new’ psychopathological picture is subjected to extensive clinical and theoreticalstudy. This paper is not an analysis about the process through which anorexia was formalized as specific psychiatric condition. Rather, it focuses on another important issue: the possibility that the ‘same’ disorder may have different meaning depending on the historical period considered. Furthermore, it is asserted that the study of every pathological form is conditioned by social, individual and cultural conditions. For example, in the same year the English Sir William Gull publishes a paper about “anorexia nervosa” which is described in a different way depending on the different perspective. Lasègue’s description is a way of seeing a kind of sufferance, that is he ‘sees’ this pathology through the hysterical paradigm. Starting from these considerations, this article discusses the construct of ‘hysterical anorexia’ trying to understand why, in late nineteenth century France, hysteria and anorexia were viewed as two aspects of the same specific disorder. Finally, it is discussed why anorexia gradually emerged as an independent mental disorder just after the death of Charcot (1893).
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