“What They Think of the Causes of So Much Suffering”: S. Weir Mitchell, John Kearsley Mitchell, and Ideas about Phantom Limb Pain in Late 19th c. America

Daniel Goldberg

Abstract


This paper analyzes S. Weir Mitchell and his son John Kearsley Mitchell’s views on phantom limb pain in late 19th c. America. Drawing on a variety of primary sources including journal articles, letters, and treatises, the paper pioneers analysis of a cache of surveys sent out by the Mitchells that contain amputee Civil War veterans’ own narratives of phantom limb pain. The paper utilizes an approach drawn from the history of ideas, documenting how changing models of medicine and objectivity help explain the Mitchells’s attitudes, practices, and beliefs regarding the enigma of phantom limb pain as experienced by their patients. The paper also assesses concerns over malingering, pain, authenticity, and deception through these intellectual frameworks of somaticism and mechanical objectivity. The paper concludes that much of relevance to the ways in which the Mitchells and other late 19th c. neurologists regarded and treated their patients’ pain is explicable in terms of the larger intellectual frameworks that structured these healers’ ideas about lesionless pain.

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4245/sponge.v8i1.20844