Silas Weir Mitchell was a great American neurologist. Unfortunately, he’s best known now for pioneering “the rest cure,” which became a common treatment for hysteria and other afflictions of the “frail female nervous system”. (See, for example, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)
But Weir Mitchell’s most important contribution to neurology came from his diagnosis of phantom limbs, which he called “sensory ghosts”. His discovery came during the middle of the Civil War, when he was working as a doctor at Turner’s Lane hospital in Philadelphia. The battle of Gettysburg had given him a hospital full of amputee patients, and, in his medical notebook, Weir Mitchell began describing a great variety of these “sensory ghosts.” Some of the missing limbs seemed unreal to the patients, while others seemed authentic; some were painful, others painless. Although a few of the amputees eventually forget about their amputated limb, the vast majority retained “a sense of the existence of their lost limb that was more vivid, definite and intrusive than that of its truly living fellow member.” The bodily illusion was more real than the body.
Weir Mitchell published these mysterious observations in two neurological textbooks. He even published a special bulletin on the phenomenon, which the Surgeon General’s office distributed to other military hospitals in 1864. But he’s best known for a fictional short story about sensory ghosts, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1866.*
While Weir Mitchell believed that he was the first person to document this phenomenon, he wasn’t. Herman Melville, 12 years earlier, had given Ahab, the gnarly sea captain of Moby Dick, a sensory ghost. Ahab is missing a leg (Moby Dick ate it), and in Chapter 108, he summons a carpenter to fashion him a new ivory peg-leg. Ahab tells the carpenter that he still feels his amputated leg “invisibly and uninterpenetratingly.” His phantom limb is like a “poser”. “Look,” Ahab says, “put thy live leg here in the place where mine was; so, now, here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. Where thou feelest tingling life; there, exactly there, there to a hair, do I. Is’t a riddle?”
After the war, Weir Mitchell’s clinical observations fell into obscurity. Because phantom limbs had no material explanation, medical science continued to ignore the phenomenon. Sadly, it would take another 30 years – and another brutal war – before sensory ghosts were re-discovered. In 1917, confronted by the maimed soldiers of WWI, the neurologist J. Babinski described his own version of sensory ghosts. He makes no mention of Herman Melville, William James or Weir Mitchell.
If you’re interested in Weir Mitchell, I’d recommend this recent historical review of his work, which I discovered via Mind Hacks. I also discuss Weir Mitchell briefly in my chapter on Walt Whitman in Proust Was A Neuroscientist. For much of their lives, Weir Mitchell and Whitman wrote letters to each other, sharing a love of literature and medical stories. In fact, it was Weir Mitchell who, in 1878, finally diagnosed Whitman with a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, prescribing “mountain air” as medicine. Later on, Weir Mitchell would financially support the poet, giving him 15 dollars a month for over two years.
*Later on in his life, Weir Mitchell would abandon medicine entirely, and devote himself to writing novels and poetry. His novel Hugh Wynne (1897) – about the experiences of a Quaker during the American Revolution – was particularly popular.