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George Beard and Lydia Pinkham: Gender, Class, and Nerves in Late 19th Century America

Whereas the fashionable set of the 18th century centered ailments in the liver, elites of late 19th century focused on their nerves (Haller, 1971). Even though the nervous patient, easily fatigued, anxious, and complaining of vague physical ailments, was hardly a novelty to layfolk or medical practitioners of the day, and the complaint was not limited to the upper classes (Davis & Whitten, 1988), it was during this era that medical specialists, such as George Beard, and popuJar patent medicine makers, such as the Pinkhams, provided a new legitimacy for nervous complaints, especially for women, in the popular media of the day. Beard, a medical doctor, synthesized the symptoms of his urban, educated, upper class patients into a single disease with distinct somatic cause and pathology. This disease was known by several popular labels, including the American Disease, nervousness, nerve weakness, nervous exhaustion, or neurasthenia (Rosenberg, 1962). At the same time Lydia Pinkham, hailed as the most important businesswoman of her era, marketed her patent medicines as a cure for nerves and female complaints among the less educated, rural, and working classes (Stage, 1979).