Archive Project: Hysteria and Isaac Baker Brown

Link to the VQA

My contribution to the VQA is centered on the topic of “hysteria” and how Isaac Baker Brown, a Victorian doctor, dealt with patients’ “wandering wombs.” The concept of hysteria is inherently sexist and Brown’s cliterectomy treatment is inhumane; however, most typical Victorian remedies for hysteria consisted of assisted masturbation and (later on) the use of vibrators. In his book On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females from 1866, Brown discusses his “removal of the cause of excitement” and he mentions the fact that he cannot discuss “all the numerous varieties of insanity and other nervous disorders to which females are liable, but only those which [he] believes to be curable by surgical means ” (Brown, 2).

The section that I chose to analyze originates from Chapter One of his book where he compares other doctors’ assisted masturbation techniques to “superficial sore[s that] will not destroy deep-seated nerve irritation” (Brown, 10).  Isaac Baker Brown’s terrible treatments and his records of female genital mutilation belong in the Victorian Queer Archive because they represent the typical heterosexual male’s response to female pleasure and sexual enlightenment within the 19th century. Brown’s fear of sexual liberation is thinly veiled under his “research” and his anxieties remind me of a William Rathbone Greg’s article called “Why are Women Redundant” that was written in 1862 and published in the National Review. In the article, Rathbone Greg is startled by the “abnormal extent of female celibacy” and he fears that women are “redundant” because they are choosing to remain unmarried, which is essentially code for independent (of men) and chaste (Rathbone Greg, 162).

Since female masturbation matches Holly Ferneaux’s idea of something that differs from a “life-script of opposite-sex marriage and reproduction,” I believe that these accounts are valuable and that they display the growing fear of female pleasure without the presence of men. This dramatic shift from the marriage-plot format to a narrowed focus on alternative sexual methods implies that men (and their genitals) are irrelevant and replaceable by the other women, by stimulation of the clitoris from vibrators, or by solo-stimulation. Furthermore, since Brown’s novel discusses the dangers of the “continual abnormal irritation of a nerve centre (the stimulation of the clitoris),” I suspect that he is nervous about female liberation and the potential “redundancy of men.”

Indeed, Brown’s choice to remove the clitoris in order to cure “hysteria” provides a concrete visual representation of Victorian anxieties spanning from the existence of lesbian relationships, the ability to achieve pleasure without a penis, and the evolution and potential eradication of the marriage-plot. Brown’s language of “superficial sore” articulates his disdain for the female sex organ and his negative word associations with the “source of evil” are the perfect display of the Victorian patriarchy in its frantic attempts to suppress women’s social and economic mobility through sexual control.


Favorite excerpt from page 11 of Brown’s book: “Experience seems to teach that in those patients whose brains have been so weakened by long continued peripheral excitement, [clitoral stimulation] causing frequent and increasing losses of nerve force, there is not sufficient mental power to enable them to control any less powerful irritation of smaller branches of the pudic nerve, than that removed by operation.”

Victorian men, most notably Isaac Baker Brown, do not seem to approve of the fact that women are taking matters into their own hands.  In fact, they despise it so much that the only alternative method is either to “cure” these “irritations” by operating upon them or by assisting their stimulation in doctor’s offices.  How queer!


Baker Brown, Isaac. “Chapter I: Introductory.” On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females. Hardwicke. 1866. Pp. 2 & 8-10.

Rathbone Greg, William. “Why are Women Redundant.” The National Review. 1862.: available through Columbia University Press. 1999. Pp. 157-163.

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