From Fool to Mad Femme: Photography’s role in validating gender-biased mental illnesses in the 19th century  (Spring 2012)

Photography played a significant role in defining the visual character of madness in the 19th century. With close ties to phrenology and physiology, the camera became an integral tool for psychiatrists and neurologists in their studies of patient mannerisms and the physical attributes deemed specific to mental illness. By the end of the 1850’s, physicians were illustrating their published case studies with engravings based on photographs of asylum patients. The actual photographic record became precious enough to medical science that, a decade later, we begin to see journals like Revue Photographique des Hopitaux de Paris (1869 – 1871) that went to the expense of tipping in original albumen prints. Unsustainable financially, the original photographic print was replaced by photolithographic reproductions come 1879/1880, allowing doctor/ publishers to sustain photographically illustrated serial publications more easily going forward.

Of the psychiatric case studies being published in these illustrated medical journals, between 1858 and 1888, a majority of them were on female patients. Interestingly enough, in the first half of that century, it appears that men were more susceptible to madness than women were. Per a study conducted by the York Retreat superintendent John Thurnam in 1845, the private asylums and provincial houses had 30% more men in their care than women.[1]  In the following decades, however, those numbers would flip and women would in fact become the majority hospitalized for mental illness.

This essay will attempt to address not only the role of photography in helping to legitimize the nascent practice of psychiatry, but more so its reinforcement of a cultural stereotype in Europe which regarded women as psychologically unstable, by nature of their biology. As the accepted norms of feminine propriety became more and more limited in the Victorian Era, physicians went out of their way to find cure-alls for aberrant social behavior. The catchall diagnosis for everything from teenage obstinacy to sexual appetite would be regularly diagnosed as some form of psychosis. Psychiatrists, along with neurologists and gynecologists, would wield a tremendous amount of power in this era. The doctors not only controlled the patient’s story, they controlled the visual portrayal of their patients.  (Read more)


1. Elaine Showalter, “Victorian Women and Insanity,” in Victorian Studies (Vol. 23, No. 2, Winter, 1980): 159.