“Modern life is killing us” — Doctors in 1925
Let’s play a quick game. The game goes like this: Think about Americans and what you know about us and then ponder what sort of disease would best incapsulate our general ethos. What might the symptoms be? Thin skin? Inability to think critically? A debilitating lack of empathy?
Unfortunately, that’s not precisely what Americanitis — an actual name for an actual (at the time) psychiatric condition — was when it was being diagnosed and treated. But honestly, it’s not that far off. And when I tell you what Americanitis actually is, you’re going to be curious why there isn’t a current CDC warning about the disease.
The Infection of Industrialization
First things, the term “Americanitis” so named because a whole lot of sad, pathetic Americans were falling ill with it, not because it was a condition whose symptoms were reminiscent of the traits of Americans. The Christian name for this poorly-defined constellation of symptoms was neurasthenia and it was kind of like garden-variety depression except more.
Neurasthenia was first described in 1829 as an actual weakness of the nerves, but it soon came to mean a broader set of problems. At this time, it was mainly a diagnosis applied to children; in England, the new public school system meant young people who were, for the first time, being observed by people other than their parents and being made to do things like sit at a desk.
Writing in a comprehensive 2022 paper, Henry Connor noted that these diagnoses spiked when “Charles Thackrah, a Leeds-based surgeon and pioneer in the field of occupational medicine, wrote of the student’s poor posture and lack of exercise which caused impaired digestion and a congested brain.”
Conditions attributed to overpressure usually included fatigue as a core symptom and others, some of which might now be classified as psychosomatic, such as weariness, lethargy, stress-related headache, insomnia, nightmares, restlessness, irritability, and malaise. They also included myopia, spinal deformity attributed to badly designed desks, and some more serious problems such as hysteria, insanity and suicide, chorea…