Falsely diagnosing women with mental illness was a scandal in the 1850s – so how did Freud get away with it?

I’m currently enjoying The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – the real-life English country house murder story by Kate Summerscale – and to my delight I’ve discovered that it contains some wonderful insights into Victorian attitudes to mental illness.

We learn, for example, that the Victorians believed madness was generally passed down from the mother, and that the most likely recipient was the daughter. Summerscale writes: “Another theory – psychological rather than physiological – was that brooding on one’s hereditary taint of madness could itself bring it on.”

What particularly surprised me the other day was a passage in the book suggesting that one of the characters, a doctor, could face reprisals for his suggestion that a young girl in the story was likely to be mad simply because her mother had suffered from mental illness. “In the 1850s” Summerscale explains, “several medical men were found to have consigned sane women to asylums – the ease of getting a doctor to testify a women’s madness had become a national scandal. A parliamentary select committee investigated the phenomenon in 1858, and the Women in White [murder mystery novel] was dramatising it in 1860. The public was familiar now, with the figure of the physician who falsely declared a woman insane.”

Remember this is some decades before Fraud (oops, see here) Freud started applying the diagnosis of conversion disorder or hysteria to so many women, many of whom probably had organic illnesses. So the timeline seems odd somehow. How did a society that apparently recognised the scandal of falsely diagnosing women with mental illness, give way to Freud and all his shenanigans? Or am I being unfair to Freud? If anyone can explain, I’d love to hear from you via comments…

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to official website of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.