What was "brain fever" in the 19th century?

I’ve seen “planet struck” listed as a cause of death back in the day, and no, they didn’t jump off a tall building, as someone else once suggested. :upside_down_face:

This is a really important point. Conan Doyle wrote for readers of The Strand magazine. He wrote for what mattered to them and their experience. Success meant pandering to that readership’s world view. He would never have imagined we would discussing his work over a century later.
We forgive some breathtaking social attitudes in his writing.

This was also a time when some women needed to take extended holidays in the countryside for quite different reasons.

In what I’ve read, Traumatic Shock maybe, not Post Traumatic Shock.

I think I’d translate “Shell Shock” as “combat fatigue” or CSR, rather than PTSD, so a better match for Brain Fever. From what I’ve read, if you used Shell Shock to describe Post Traumatic Stress, you’d be using it the same sense as “he’s still suffering from loosing his legs”, where the actual CSR/shell shock/leg loss was something that happened in the past.

When I’ve read English people describing WWI PTSD (‘he never slept without a light on’ / ‘he had the most terrible dreams for years after’ / etc) they sometimes attributed it to Shell Shock, but didn’t describe it as Shell Shock.

The best account seems to be in the paper cited above, Brain Fever in Nineteenth-Century Literature.

I downloaded the PDF without having to register or have any subscription.

As late as 1858 James Copland identifies the symptoms of “Brain Fever” as “acute pain in the head, with intolerance of light and sound; watchfulness, delirium; flushed countenance, and redness of the conjunctiva, or a heavy suffused state of the eyes; quick pulse; frequently spasmodic twitchings or convulsions, passing into somnolency, coma, and complete relaxation of the limbs.”

Although there is no precise present-day equivalent for brain fever, many of the symptoms and the post-mortem evidence were consistent with some forms of meningitis or encephalitis.

However, the causes were unknown, and could be assigned to psychological factors.

Among the causes of fever he cites famine, fatigue, and those events which give “a severe shock to the nervous system. The various kinds of mental emotion—fear, anxiety, disappointments, long continued watching on a sick bed, intense study, want of sleep may individually be ranked among the predisposing causes of fever”

It is clear enough, then, that brain fever was not a fictional invention, but that both physicians and laymen believed that emotional shock or excessive intellectual activity could produce a severe and prolonged fever.

The disease was particularly attractive to writers of fiction because of its dramatic onset and long duration. Although most fictional accounts follow the medical descriptions closely, some general differences in the two are evident. For example, the disease is more often fatal in medicine than in fiction. Some literary victims die but most survive and continue to function in the narrative.

The author also discusses two Sherlock Holmes stories in detail, among a number of other fictional examples.

She concludes:

The modern reader who encounters “brain fever” in fiction is likely to attribute the disease to psychological causes. Certainly both real and fictional persons do sometimes become seriously ill as a result of grief, emotional shock, or even excessive study. What makes the nineteenth-century description of brain fever unique is that it assigns emotional causes to a disease which then follows a prescribed physiological course like that of other recognized diseases. Just as the gradual wasting away of tuberculosis made that disease a popular one for fictional purposes, so the combination of emotional cause and physical effect made brain fever attractive to the novelist, according to the needs of the specific work.

Doesn’t that mean a meteor struck Mars, knocking a chunk loose, and then that chunk eventually reaching Earth and striking someone? :laughing:

Some people believe that this may be how rocks from Mars landed in Antarctica. I respectfully disagree.

This classic bit of copypasta feels relevant to the thread;


Which type of Victorian novels were they reading? :flushed::grin:

I had always assumed that these were cryptic references to known works, but my reading of Victoriana is very limited to say the least, so although a couple look possible, I really have not much of a clue.

“Going outside at night in Italy” is Daisy Miller, but I have to admit I can’t identify any of the others (and I’m an English professor, so I should be better at this!)

Yeah, that one certainly works. Since it is women in literate, the span could be quite wide.

Cold hands brings to mind Mimi in La Traviata, “your tiny hand is frozen”. Dying of tuberculosis must have been one of the commonest ways of finishing off a large number of characters.

Too many pillows might suggest Desdemona in Othello. But it isn’t easy.

We have 17 year locusts and now 7 year threads.

That’s not what the cause of death was. “Going outside at night, when mosquitoes are out, to an area where malaria is known to be common” is a more accurate description of the cause of death. But that wouldn’t fit with the list’s goal of making it seem like 19th century novelists drew women as absurdly sensitive creatures.

Pah, I meant La Bohème. Both Mimi and Violeta die of tuberculosis, so it is all too easy to get confused.

Some quick Googling indicates that mosquitoes were first prove to spread malaria in 1897. I don’t know if there was suspicion of it earlier then that.

And again, an exaggeration in the list to make a supposed point. The cold hands are a a symptom of the disease that is killing her, tuberculosis. That’s the cause of death, not the cold hands.

True, but Winterbourne reproaches Giovanelli for taking Daisy to the Colessrum at night, a place where it’s known “Roman fever” (malaria) is a well-known risk. She then catches the disease and dies. The point is that in the context of the story, the risk of catching a fatal disease at the Colesseum was apparently well-known. That’s what killed her, not going for a walk in Rome at night.

Yeah, but there is no fun in it then.
I don’t think the list is intended to make female protagonists look weak, but just to have some fun with the stories and to appeal to people that are well enough read in the genres to recognise the works from the cryptic clues.

Too add - Mimi dying of tuberculosis puts her in a large set of others, but a frozen hand, is pretty specific to the specific story. If you wrote “tuberculosis” in the list, the number of possible answers would be legion.