Early Theories

By Natalie Fraize

wandering womb

One of the more well-known theories of hysteria is the early idea of the wandering womb. What this diagnosis implied was that the afflicted female’s uterus was roaming the body interfering with other areas, resulting in the symptoms that they had.  Because of the way the theory is constructed, it could be used to explain ailments in nearly every part of the body.  This was thought to have originated with the Greeks and Hippocrates however there are earlier reports of this with the Egyptians (Ng, 1999).

In this early stage of hysteria’s development, the illness is already considered a feminine affliction.  The treatment that came about was childbirth.  It was believed that if the womb was put to use as it was intended, it would no longer wander the body causing these problems.

With the wandering womb, Hippocrates connected epilepsy to hysteria describing a seizure as the result of the uterus nearing the liver (Ng, 1999).  Epilepsy continued to be one of the symptoms often attributed to hysteria as the illness developed.


controversial treatments

As time progressed other theories arose such as that of Galen’s in about 200 A.D.  Galen proposed that hysteria was caused by the retention of  sperm in both women and men (Ng, 1999).  Although Galen’s theory was inclusive of men, women remained the great majority of hysteria patients.  The disease was beginning to have sexual causes which led to treatments such as genital stimulation resulting in the release of these retained fluids.

Following this in the 1700s, hypotheses about hysteria as a brain disorder, a somataform or hypochondriachal disorder, and animal spirits as the cause all were created in Europe (Ng, 1999).  The idea that hysteria was a somataform disorder or that symptoms of the disease fell into this category is one that will reoccur in later theories.

Women diagnosed with hysteria were often seen in a negative light based on the belief that they were faking these symptoms or being deceitful.  For example, a woman may have appeared to be in physical pain or suffering from a physiological problem however upon medical examination would show no sign of such. If a patient came in with these symptoms now, they would likely be diagnosed with Conversion Disorder (Stone et al., 2010).  Some treatments even included deceit on the doctor’s part in order to trick the patient into relief from the symptoms (Ng, 1999).


Ng, Beng-Yeong (1999). Hysteria; A cross-cultural comparison of its origins and history.          History of Psychiatry, 10, 287-301.

Stone, Jon; Lafrance, W. Curt, Jr.; Levenson, James L.; Sharpe, Michael (2010). Issues              for DSM-5: Conversion disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 167(6).                      Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org.ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/index.cfm?                            fa=search.displayRecord&id=0A0C9AC0-0B35-E136-F2C9-                                                      D9234A627D55&resultID=1&page=1&dbTab=all

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