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A Collection of Unexpected Cookbook Authors: Silas Weir Mitchell

Madeira-Party-Silas-Weir-MitchellHow many people have a species of rattlesnake named after them? And how many of those have also dabbled in culinary authorship? Silas Weir Mitchell may be the only individual to have accomplished both. The physician did extensive research on maladies of the nervous system, publishing a number of important medical treatises. Dr. Mitchell eventually turned his attention to more literary pursuits, penning many prose and poetry pieces. One of these is A Madeira Party, which (though admittedly not a cookbook) offers an entertaining glimpse into dining and wine drinking at the turn of the century.

Mitchell’s Illustrious Medical Career

Silas_Weir_MitchellDuring the Civil War, Dr. Mitchell was in charge of nervous maladies at Turners Lane Hospital. He would go on to specialize in neurology, eventually coining the term “phantom limb,” a not-uncommon affliction of Civil War amputees. It was Dr. Mitchell who originated the “rest cure” for nervous disorders, which consisted of isolation and confinement to bed, along with a special diet, electrotherapy, and massage. The treatment came to be known as “Dr. Diet & Dr. Quiet.”

Sigmund Freud himself reviewed Dr. Mitchells’ The Treatment for Certain Forms of Neurasthenia and Hysteria in 1887. He was quite impressed with the work and began using electrotherapy himself soon after. Some also postulate that Freud also took a note from Dr. Mitchell regarding physical relaxation during therapy, resulting in Freud’s adoption of the psychoanalytic couch.

Not everyone was equally taken with Dr. Mitchell’s methods. Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of his patients, wrote the famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” after submitting to the rest cure. The story’s protagonist is literally driven insane by the rest treatment that’s supposed to restore her. Dr. Mitchell also treated Virginia Woolf, who ridiculed the rest cure:

“You invoke proportion: order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months’ rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve.”

Despite these less than stellar reviews from famous patients, Dr. Mitchell was extremely well respected in the medical community–and with good reason. Mitchell’s disease is named after him, as is the Crotalus mitchelli (speckled rattlesnake). He produced several important monographs on the effects of snake venom and an influential paper about the impact of gunshot wounds on the nervous system. The American Academy of Neurology named an award for young neurologists after him.

A Complementary Interest in the Arts

A standout in the medical community, Dr. Mitchell also earned a reputation as a patron of the arts. He was a friend to Thomas Eakin, and the Chippendale chairs that appear in several of Eakin’s paintings were actually borrowed from Dr. Mitchell’s home.  Legendary artist John Singer Sargent painted two portraits of Dr. Mitchell. And Dr. Mitchell commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to do a bronze sculpture as a memorial to Dr. Mitchell’s deceased daughter Maria. It’s now located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In 1863, Dr. Mitchell also discovered another pursuit. He wrote a short story called “The Case of George Dedlow” that explored the intersection of physical and psychological problems. The story was published in the Atlantic Monthly and was quite well received. From that point on, Dr. Mitchell divided his time between medical and literary endeavors. Dr. Mitchell would go on to write juvenile stories, several volumes of poetry, and some prose fiction (including A Madeira Party). He earned acclaim for his works of historical fiction, which includes Hugh WynneFree QuakerAdventures of Francois, and The Red City.

Thus Dr. Mitchell came to be equally respected in the literary and medical worlds. A Madeira Party has become a favorite among culinary-minded collectors and wine connoisseurs, though few know of Dr. Mitchell’s other contributions to medicine and psychiatry.

 

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This entry was posted on December 18, 2013 by in History and tagged , , , .
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