WAUKESHA, WIS.— Dr. Lori Duin Kelly, professor of English at Carroll University, recently published an article in the “Journal of Medical Humanities,” the leading interdisciplinary journal in the field. “Selecting a Somatic Type: The Role of Anorexia in the Rest Cure” is an exploration of 19th century physician Weir Mitchell and his treatment of women suffering from neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion.
While conducting research at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, Kelly discovered a series of before and after photographs of female neurasthenics that were sent to Mitchell by William Playfair, his British counterpart. The before images showed severely emaciated women; in the after images, the women were plump and smiling. Playfair advocated having images accompany medical articles to establish the effectiveness of the Rest Cure.
Kelly’s article discusses the importance of the “before” anorectic bodies to promote this specific method of treatment. Women in Mitchell’s care were restricted to bed rest and required to consume a high caloric diet for six to eight weeks. The plump “after” individual is in stark contrast to the emaciated long-term invalid who had begun treatment. After their discharge, the women were expected to return to their designated Victorian roles as wives as mothers.
While Kelly agrees that the Rest Cure undeniably alleviated patients’ physical symptoms, she concludes that Mitchell failed to address the underlying issue of what had caused so many of them to take to their beds in the first place. Mitchell also bypasses the issue of recidivism, or relapse, although there is historical evidence that this was quite common for Rest Cure patients.
This has led to Kelly’s subsequent research on Mitchell’s approach to melancholia, or depression. She will present on that topic in the Medical Humanities area of the Popular Culture Association conference in April 2012. Her paper is titled “The Full Measure of Cheerfulness.”
Kelly joined Carroll’s faculty in 1986 and is an expert in 19th century American literature, women’s literature, and literature and medicine. She is the chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages, and is the Mary Robertson Williams Co-Chair in English. She has published two books; the most recent, “Bodily Inscriptions: Interdisciplinary Explorations into Embodiment,” includes a chapter on Mitchell. Her work has also appeared in “Southern Studies,” “Conradiana,” “Studies in Popular Culture,” “Legacy” and “Academic Medicine.”