Neurasthenia is Greek for ‘nerve weakness’. The disease was identified and named in the late 1800s when nervous illnesses and nervous breakdown became common in North America and Europe. The American neurologist George Beard popularised the term, attributing the ‘epidemic’ of neurasthenia to the speed and fragmentation of modern industrialised life - especially in the US. He identified six factors: ‘steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, the mental activity of women, and the erosion of religious faith’. The neurasthenia diagnosis was based on cutting-edge research into disabling nerve diseases such as muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. The name, however, never caught on among British physicians because many regarded it as an unconvincing American attempt to lend false scientific legitimacy to the old ‘English malady’ of nerves.
The doctor’s diagnosis frequently reflected the patient’s socioeconomic class. Physicians often diagnosed working-class people as hysterical or simply ‘insane’, but tended to diagnose social climbers as neurasthenic. Some feminist historians argued in the 1980s that the neurasthenia diagnosis was applied more often to men than women. This is difficult to prove because definitions of neurasthenia at the time were broad and often differed from doctor to doctor. Recent work suggests a roughly equal number of male and female neurasthenics.
The neurasthenia diagnosis fell out of use in the early 1900s. Its symptoms became classified under the broader category of neurosis. However, it had an unexpected resurgence in China in the late 1900s under the name shenjing shuairuo.
M Gijswijt-Hofstra and R Porter (eds), Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001)
E Green Musselman, Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006)
J Oppenheim, ‘Shattered Nerves’: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)
The study of the functions, anatomy and organic disorders of the nervous system.