In Plato’s Timaeus [ca. 360 BC] we are told about the “wandering uterus”, a mystical “animated”substance within that travels about the body until its animal desires are satisfied and a seed is sown.
And this was the reason why at that time the gods created in us the desire of sexual intercourse, contriving in man one animated substance, and in woman another, which they formed respectively in the following manner. The outlet for drink by which liquids pass through the lung under the kidneys and into the bladder, which receives and then by the pressure of the air emits them, was so fashioned by them as to penetrate also into the body of the marrow, which passes from the head along the neck and through the back, and which in the preceding discourse we have named the seed. And the seed having life, and becoming endowed with respiration, produces in that part in which it respires a lively desire of emission, and thus creates in us the love of procreation. Wherefore also in men the organ of generation becoming rebellious and masterful, like an animal disobedient to reason, and maddened with the sting of lust, seeks to gain absolute sway; and the same is the case with the so-called womb or matrix of women; the animal within them is desirous of procreating children, and when remaining unfruitful long beyond its proper time, gets discontented and angry, and wandering in every direction through the body, closes up the passages of the breath, and, by obstructing respiration, drives them to extremity, causing all varieties of disease, until at length the desire and love of the man and the woman, bringing them together and as it were plucking the fruit from the tree, sow in the womb, as in a field, animals unseen by reason of their smallness and without form; these again are separated and matured within; they are then finally brought out into the light, and thus the generation of animals is completed. [http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/plato/bl-plato-timaeus.htm]
The Greek word for uterus was hystera, and it is from this organ that the “animal desire” for procreation was born and it is from this term that the diagnosis of hysteria was born.
When Hippocrates (460-370 BC) wrote his Canon or Corpus he included in it a section “On the diseases of Women” , he made no direct mention of this term, nor a disease that fit what scholars and physicians might later call “hysteria”. But the sense of what role the matrix or uterus played in a woman’s life need not ever be fully explained in its entirety. If this were the case, and if Osborn were to have tried to engage in this, he would have never completed the remaining portions of his book. Suffice it to say that Osborn was the best he could be under the given circumstances for treating a woman, especially someone with a sense of malaise, a complaint, or an authentic medical condition that rarely could a physician understand better than a fellow midwife of the maidens. During his time, it was unusual for a woman to approach a male doctor with intent to reveal her innermost and outermost secrets, given the apparel for the time. She may be willing to share with him her story of what is making her hysterical. But would he ever understand this fully was a question still waiting for an answer once most visits were completed. It would not be unusual for a physician like Osborn to walk out with no more of an understanding of the role of the female mind and spirit, much less the role her body, in making her as debilitated as she might seem to him. A woman with a medical condition was always better going to another women to mend her wounds and clean out whatever was causing her malaise.
For hysteria, we have what is very much a condition that is culturally defined, and culturally assigned or diagnosed for a female patient. This part of the feminine condition was not so much a disease of the corpus as much as it was a disease of the heart, autonomically and limbically speaking and the brain, intellectually and emotionally speaking. But back in colonial times, none of this reasoning existed. A person had his or her physical part or corpus to take care of and protect, and his or her animal spirit that kept the corpus moving and going, and the nervous system with its own internal spirit propagating into and producing one’s own intellect, knowledge base, and rationalism. In colonial times, spirits could traverse the walls formed by body’s normally physical channels. It could move from one organ system to the next, one body part to the next, one form to the next, without necessary behaving in accordance with natural law. Hysteria is one such an event where the doctor tries to assign purpose and meaning to his theory about how and why such behaviors are formed in someone. One could easily try to use a fairly recent scientific philosophy to try to explain such events, but is seemed to be better to just stick with the old-fashioned theory for unexplainable behaviors a women went through at times. Just stick with the old argument was perhaps the decision many physicians made—we’ll blame the hard to define state of a woman’s hysteria on her uterus; this means it is only something that she could become possessed by or about.
Like his predecessors, Osborn probably adhered somewhat to the wandering uterus theory for hysterics. It wasn’t so much the uterus itself that wandered, but its energy or non-physical makings. If Osborn believed that man and women had the essence of life within themselves, and both had humours and the fifth element (essence) to contend with the imbalances of throughout life, then they must also have some sort of spiritual make up that they share as well—their electra or body electric, or their entia, ens primum or some other state of being. Osborn’s philosophy perhaps did remarkably resemble also some of the Oriental teachings of chi, a form of energy that flows into and through different parts of the body, different tissues, and is something that takes a little of something else like energy from each of these places it must stop. In this way the chi of food feeds to blood, which in turn goes to the lung and shares some of these experiences, which in turn go to the heart, and to the kidneys where the key to life is formed according to Chinese philosophy. A the quote from Plato’s Timaeus above , we read about some route that the energy takes in the body defined by its principal parts, a philosophy only slightly different in definitions of energy and the channeling of its flow.
Osborn spends no time filling us in on his philosophy of what causes this to happen in women. So his recipes for hysteria have to be used to tell us a little about what he was thinking.
Osborn relies upon volatile spirits and salts once again, much like he did for the menses absentia (skipped period or delayed terms). He once again uses the pill fett (fetid pill) to awaken something within. And her prescribed once again the patent medicine Hooper’s Pills. To Osborn, the more fetid (stinky) the medicine, the more likely it was to cure women of this form of distress. Whereas a women could faint due to her late period, or her early stage of pregnancy and reaction to this realization, a women in hysterics did not faint and therefore could not be treated so effectively as by using sal ammoniac (ammonium or smelling salts). Using the Sal Ammoniac to treat hysteria might only make the condition worse.
Instead Osborn recommends the very similar Spirit of Hartshorn (deer antlers), slightly different, but smelly and quite compelling should it be recommended to induce a behavioral change. Like before with the stopped menses, Ol Succin and Spt Lavendar are also there. And there is the old-fashioned herbal cure popular amongst women and midwives, the locally wild mugwort (Artemisia sp.).
The only things left to understand therefore are Tincture of Castor or the oil of Castoreum (beaver), per foetidus (the more fetid the better), and the Hiera Picra—the Bitter Pill or Holy Bitter. As for the Oil of Castor, suffice it to say that this was quite available locally as part of the trapping trade. The fetid aroma worked much like that of the pil fett already mentioned by Osborn. If fetidness could not scare the bad spirits away, then try bitterness instead Osborn may have concluded. His belief perhaps: overcome the bitters (usually a taste related to either of the two biles) and you will move into better spirits. How was this holy bitter made? With Aloes and Canella bark usually—a cathartic laxative and a bitter cinnamon like bark from Central America. Alexander Trallianus introduced this recipe to the Christian community in the 6th century when he recommended it for all sorts of weak conditions. He introduced it most for use as an anthelminthic (intestinal worm remedy); instead, more than a millennium later, it became more than just a worm cure for Dr. Osborn and others.
Another Trallianus Bitter — Colocynthis