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Railway spine

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Rail travel became popular across Europe and North America in the 1800s. But train crashes were frighteningly frequent and physicians had to treat traumatic bodily injuries. They also encountered accident victims without apparent physical wounds. These patients experienced debilitating nerve problems including exhaustion, trembling and chronic pain.

Were these people faking symptoms to get compensation from the railway companies? Physicians hired by the companies to investigate such claims said this was rarely the case. Nerves were so delicate that damage might be invisible, even under the microscope, yet carry lasting effects. ‘Railway spine’ became a common medical term for this condition. Like neurasthenia and nervous breakdown, the diagnosis rooted people’s pain in the body rather than the mind, and thus legitimised their suffering. It also avoided the stigma of mental illness, and kept accident victims out of asylums.

 

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Bibliography

A Young, The Harmony of Illusions (New Jersey: University of Princeton Press, 1997)

Glossary:

Symptom

A physical or mental feature which is regarded as indicating a condition of disease