Jean Martin Charcot

A French psychiatrist who specialized in the study of hysteria, using hypnosis as a primary treatment. He was also an anatomical pathologist and has been called the founder of modern neurology.

The son of a carriage maker, Jean Martin Charcot was born in Paris on November 29, 1825. He studied medicine at the University of Paris, graduated in 1853, and was appointed professor of pathological anatomy there in 1860. In 1862 he was appointed senior physician at the Salpetriere Hospital for the treatment of the mentally ill. It became a center for psychiatric training and psychiatric care. Charcot had a flair for theatrics as well as a reputation as a skilled scientist, and his lectures and demonstrations attracted students from all over Europe.

Charcot's contributions fall largely into three categories. First, he studied the etiology, presentation, and cure of hysterical disorders, called psychoneuroses. These syndromes involve physical symptoms with no evidence of underlying clinical pathology. His patients typically had convulsions, paralyses, blindness, deafness, numbness in various body parts, and amnesias. There is no evidence of physiological abnormalities in psychoneuroses, because the root of the problems is psychological. In Charcot's time, hysteria was believed to be a disorder that occurred only in women (the Greek word hystera means uterus). Freud was later to associate hysterical symptoms with sexual problems occurring in either gender but occurring far more frequently in females than males.

Charcot's second area of contribution was the correlation of various behavioral symptoms with physiological abnormalities of the nervous system. One of the major issues for early psychiatry was that of determining whether many behavioral abnormalities had their origins in psychological or in physiological disturbances and, if physiological, where in the central nervous system the abnormality had its genesis. Charcot gained fame for his ability to diagnose and locate the physiological disturbances of nervous system functioning.

Finally, Charcot made popular the use of hypnosis as a part of diagnosis and therapy. Hypnosis, known at the time as mesmerism (named for Franz Anton Mesmer [1734–1815]), was regarded by the medical profession as charlatanism. Charcot found hypnotism useful in distinguishing true psychoneurotics from prevaricators and, like Mesmer, found that hysterical symptoms could be relieved through its use. In the hypnotic state the patient falls into an apparent sleep. While in this condition, the patient may sometimes recall events in the past that are not readily recalled in the waking state, and the patient is often susceptible to the suggestions of the therapist, so long as they are part of the person's normal behavioral repertoire. In 1882, Charcot presented a summary of his findings to the French Academy of Sciences, where they were received very favorably. Scientific psychiatry was thus well on its way to being accepted by the medical profession. Charcot died on August 16, 1893.

See also Binet, Alfred; Freud, Sigmund; Hypnosis ; Janet, Pierre Marie Felix.



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(MLA 8th Edition)