Amy Milne-Smith
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Degeneration and madness
Inheritance, neurasthenia, criminals, and GPI
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This final chapter explores why madness could evoke so much social anxiety. Fears of perceived rising lunacy rates were used as proof of over-civilization and decline. As the nineteenth century progressed, cure rates seemed to plummet, and degeneration literature flourished. Fear that madness was hereditary led to gloomy predictions about the decline of the British race paralleling conversations about urban decay and criminal classes. This chapter places medical conversations into broader cultural contexts.

Particular masculine anxieties were linked to fears of overwork and the emasculated neurasthenic, the criminalized degenerate, and the alcoholic madman. A final focus on the diagnosis of General Paralysis of the Insane demonstrates the social construction of medical thinking. GPI was one of the few mental diseases that could be seen in the brain after death, and it had a relatively clear and consistent set of symptoms. Despite this, GPI was often diagnosed through lifestyle as much as symptomology. The fact that GPI seemed to affect men more than women and led to almost inevitable death made it the embodiment of degenerationist fantasies that only increased as the century progressed. Insanity was a central point of argument in theories of decline.

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Out of his mind

Masculinity and mental illness in Victorian Britain


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