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J Hist Neurosci. 1999 Apr;8(1):35-42.

Hysteria behind the scenes: Jane Avril at the Salpetriere.


Jane Avril (1868-1943), the famous dancer of the Moulin Rouge, immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec, left behind published Memoires (1933). Trustworthy and written with verve, they include an account of her admission to Charcot's service at the Salpetriere in December 1882. There she was kept until June 1884, not so much because of illness but to protect her from her mother's abuse. Jane Avril provides unvarnished testimony of the daily life of the women with hysteria among whom she lived. She wrongly accuses them of simulation. But she accurately portrays the rivalry of the 'crazy girls' who vied to become the center of attention, and she sheds light on the factors that came together to make hysteria contagious (she herself escaped), the loading of symptomatology and the cultivation of the ailment. Charcot has been criticized on this score, since he showed his recognition of the underlying process when he pronounced isolation to be necessary to treatment. If Charcot accommodated hysteria, the ailment amply rewarded him with a fame that continues to this day to overshadow his achievement in neuropathology that he brilliantly forged using the "anatomo-clinical method."

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