Psychiatry in the 19th century was filled with quack doctors and quack cures. The need for doctors specializing in mental illness rose quickly during and after the Civil War, and among the new crop of doctors was Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. He studied phantom limb syndrome among the many battlefield amputees, wrote about it, and became known as the “Father of Modern American Neurology.” Mitchell then turned to other mental maladies, such as “neurasthenia,” which could be pretty much anything. The cure for men was to get back to nature and do physical labor.
But the cure was not quite so simple for women. Ladies, too, found themselves impaired by the pace of modern life, or, at least, swept up in the medical trend. More specifically, white, upper-class, educated women came to dominate Mitchell’s patient demographic. Women who occupied privileged positions like this, who were often writers and artists, had been increasingly afforded time outside of the home, the opportunity to socialize, and higher education. But using their minds so extensively, Mitchell believed, could easily deplete their energy and fry their fragile nerves.
Mitchell proceeded to prescribe the rest cure almost exclusively to these women—“nervous women,” writes Mitchell, “who, as a rule, are thin and lack blood.” And the way to quell the overexerted brain and depleted blood supply of a woman was to, essentially, prescribe her a long, milky, much-needed rest.
Patient were prescribed isolation, bedrest for months at a time, a calorie-rich diet of milk and baby foods, and no mental stimulation. Many gained weight, which for some, was a benefit. Read about Dr. Mitchell's weird treatment at Atlas Obscura.