women, work, and vapors, in late 18th-century medicine


Vapors. You may have heard that women having vapors was a thing back in the nineteenth century. This piece looked at hysteria in its earlier incarnation: vapors. This was the first piece I published post-graduate school. Just like the title states, I wrote about the connection between work, machines, and vapors. How did the new scientific concept of "work" -- think 2nd law of thermodynamics, that the entropy of a system always increases -- shift the discourse on the burgeoning field of psychology.

Alongside this development in mechanics, physiological treatises continued the tradition of describing the mind in terms of work. Moreover, a number of treatises emerged that attempted to define an elusive ailment, subsequently known as hysteria. A close reading of one such treatise by the Montpellier-trained physician Beauchêne brings into focus how late eighteenth-century physiology reflected a period-specific anxiety, which the work of Carnot only made too obvious: the irreversible arrow of time, the inevitable development (and progress) of civilization.

I'd say that the best part of this essay was no doubt the start, and, as luck would have it, I didn't really say it: ​


Writing in 1874, Lord Kelvin asked his readers to imagine a world without an irreversible arrow of time. In his description, he painted a strange universe, counter intuitive to any observer:

If the motion of every particle of matter in the universe were precisely reversed at any instant, the course of nature would be simply reversed forever after. The bursting bubble of foam at the foot of the waterfall would reunite and descend into the water; the thermal motions would reconcentrate their energy, and throw the mass up the fall in drops reforming into a close column of ascending water. (qtd. in Holton 251) 

In this impossible reversal of a waterfall, Kelvin underscored what had become evident since the early nineteenth century: the relationship between energy and work, a relationship which found its perfect expression in the field of thermodynamics. Almost a century earlier,Lazare Carnot was the first to articulate this relationship theoretically.Parallel to his first mathematical model, eighteenth-century physiologists theorized about ideal mental processes in strikingly similar language. Machines and mind drew from similar conservation laws. At the core of mind and machine lay a potential energy, a capacity to perform work. Ideal minds and machines mastered and resisted the inevitable process of decay. Similar language is used by the Montpellier-trained doctor and court physician, Edme-Pierre Chanvot de Beauchêne, in his De l’influence des affections de l’âme dans les maladies nerveuses des femmes (1781). But Beauchêne’s text displaces a common metaphor of the mind’s work. At a historical moment that becomes aware of its irreversibility, his text reflects an anxiety about the arrow of time — the inevitable process of civilization.


Work, Machines, and Vapors in Late Eighteenth-Century France.” In Civilization in French and Francophone Literatures and Film.

Please reload

Please reload