Charcot, an Extraordinary Man of Science

Jean-Martin Charcot was a famous doctor and neurologist. He was born in Paris in 1825 and his contributions had a definitive resonance, both in medicine and in psychology.

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Jean-Martin Charcot was a famous doctor and neurologist. He was born in Paris in 1825 and his contributions had a definitive resonance, both in medicine and in psychology. He was a student of the famous Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne. Both he and Charcot are considered the fathers of neurology. But not only that. Charcot was also the most important precursor of psychoanalysis.

He worked for 30 years in the famous Hospital de la Salpêtrière. When Charcot arrived there there were around 5000 patients. About 3000 of them had mental problems. In that hospital, new doctors were also taught and new methods were experimented. It was the most important medical center in the world at that time, in everything that had to do with the brain.

“The theory is good, but it does not prevent things from happening.”

-Jean-Martin Charcot-

Charcot became very famous in Europe when he started using hypnosis as a treatment method for hysteria. He was first of all a man of science and for that reason he was open to all the novelties in the field of medicine. His observations led him to take special interest in hysteria, a disorder he explored more than any other of his contemporaries.

Charcot and his arrival at the Salpêtrière

The patients with whom Charcot was found were of all kinds. There were prostitutes, vagabonds, people with cognitive problems and others who had been rejected by society. The Salpêtrière was then known as the great asylum of human misery or “pandemonio de insanía”. It was Charcot who transformed that chaotic place into the most important medical research center in Europe.

From the time of Hippocrates, the uterus was spoken of as a mobile organ that wandered through the body of the woman. When that organ reached the chest, it caused serious symptoms. Among them, strange convulsions and hot flashes. That was called hysteria. Many women had such symptoms. It was thought then that hysteria was an exclusive condition of women.

Upon the arrival of Charcot, a large part of the patients were not being treated. The majority of women, on the other hand, had been diagnosed as hysterical. However, the French doctor noted that some men also had symptoms that could be classified as hysterical. And women, in addition to hot flashes and seizures, also had rare expressions of the disease, such as blindness or paralysis. What is common in all these cases is that there was no medical explanation.

The hysteria

Jean-Martin Charcot was above all a student of the brain. His research allowed laying the foundations to understand diseases such as sclerosis. Also specify many aspects of brain hemorrhages and others such as Friedrich’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome. However, his curiosity took him again and again to the pavilion of the so-called simple epileptics. There, 90% of the patients were classified as hysterical and neurasthenic.

Charcot showed that hysteria was not in the womb, but in the brain. He also postulated that the origin of these convulsions, hot flushes, paralysis and other symptoms without explanation, could be in an experience of the past. Almost simultaneously, he proposed the idea that this evil could be treated through hypnosis. This is how one of the most fascinating scenarios of those times emerged: the sessions on Tuesdays.

In them Charcot presented cases of hysteria, almost in the context of a hysterical scenario. That is, theatrical. The French doctor showed, one by one, how the symptoms disappeared under the state of hypnosis. And not all were women: it was proved that this also happened with men.

Charcot, a source of debates

Charcot was harshly criticized by many of his contemporaries. They accused him of being unscientific and of turning his Tuesday sessions into a circus. The affirmations were not fair. Charcot had a deep scientific spirit and for that reason it did not close to any option. Soon, he found analogies between hysteria and hypnosis.

Charcot proposed the existence of a traumatic hysteria. That is, triggered by an event that caused a profound impact on the person’s mind. He points out that in hypnosis there is an order that the patient fulfills by suggestion. In traumatic hysteria, something analogous occurs. The trauma is like a self hypnosis: the mandate is in the trauma and causes the subject to start acting without conscience, in a strange way.

One of the great contributions of Charcot was precisely that of having isolated the concept of “trauma” in the mind and having filled this notion with content. From the important contributions of this great French scientist, one of his students, Sigmund Freud, discovered psychoanalysis.