The Case of the Wandering Uterus and Other Erroneous Definitions of the Word ‘Hysteria’

In a frenzied episode of SciShow, host Hank Green explains the very complicated, strange and frankly disconcerting history of the term “hysteria”. The term originated from hysterika – the Greek word for uterus. Before modern science of the 20th century, many unexplained female ailments were blamed upon the uterus and its odd ability to wander around and cause harm to a woman’s body when it was bored.

This might seem somewhat silly now since we know that the uterus mostly deals with reproduction, nurturing and housing fetuses, but at the time physicians didn’t really know how all that worked. So the most popular explanation and the weirdest was that hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus. …It could crush their intestines lungs or heart or create an empty cavern in their body all of which would supposedly cause those random symptoms one greek physician called this phenomenon ‘uterine melancholy’

This implausible theory was finally put to rest, but the term hysteria remained within the modern lexicon and is defined as “a state of extreme upset” most often applied to the non-gender specific conversion disorder.

Today many of the symptoms traditionally associated with hysteria are linked to things like clinical anxiety or depression instead. And hysteria got replaced by a kind of catch-all diagnosis called conversion disorder that’s when a patient has definite neurological symptoms like paralysis or blindness without any discernible cause

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.