IA Book of the Week: The Practical Home Physician and Encyclopedia of Medicine

Each week, the Fisher Library highlights an item from its collections on the Internet Archive, which are open to anyone to explore. This week Rachael takes a look at a medical encyclopedia from the Canadiana Collection.

The Practical Home Physician and Encyclopedia of Medicine was published in 1884 and is a whopping 1214 pages of vital information on the management of diseases of men, women, and children, and care of the sick. In this week’s blog post, we will highlight the section on “Diseases of Women and Children” which starts on page 871. The chapter starts with a sort of preface, or general remarks as is seen at the top of the page. These remarks use many different metaphors and stories as a means of explaining the difference between men and women physiologically. “In the highest of animals, this office of reproduction – the most important of all animal duties – becomes so complicated that the labor is divided between two classes of beings – male and female – which, while similar in all the essentials of individual life, present marked differences in their sexual powers and organs.” The remarks also describe the differences between adult males and females, and children. Interestingly, children are described in this book as sexless until they are between the ages of twelve and eighteen. “There are, therefore, no essential differences – mental or moral – between the boy and the girl.” This is a stark difference from the gendered baby clothes and other products we have seen for decades.

The section of the book on diseases of women and children is interesting because it refers to ailments that commonly or only affect this part of the population. The first few pages discussing the bodies of women are devoted to care during menstruation and puberty. Most suggestions are straightforward for anyone to follow, not just women, such as getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy diet. Although, it does suggest that tea, coffee, wine, and condiments are “positively injurious during this stage.”


It would not be a medical encyclopedia from the 19th century without a chapter on hysteria. Hysteria is a long outdated medical concept that equated a woman’s deteriorating mental state with her diseased reproductive organs. “While in many cases there is undoubtedly a physical basis for this disease in some derangement of the sexual organs, yet in a very large number of instances hysteria is a purely mental disorder...” Common symptoms of hysteria included an “overindulgence of emotion,” an excess of tears or anger, fits, mood swings, hyperventilating, a feeling of “a ball rolling around in the abdomen and chest,” nausea, and vomiting. “In the fully developed hysterical convulsion there are certain depression of spirits or bodily discomfort, especially at or near the menstrual epoch.” It is difficult to say today what hysteria actually was a result of, especially since its causes were often debated, questioned, and ever-changing by physicians of the past. In some instances, hysteria could be similar to a panic attack, epilepsy, temper tantrums, and even PMS. The term hysterical was later used as a pejorative term describing a woman who cannot control her emotions. Again, it is difficult to say whether these women were actually throwing fits of stress-induced rage or if those documenting them simply witnessed something other than what was socially acceptable for a demure, timid woman of the time.

Following this section, the book dives into marriage and pregnancy, diseases of pregnancy, childbirth, and diseases of children. The chapter on women’s health is extensive and deserves far more unpacking than this limited space is able to provide. This week, we will close out with some advice from this piece that readers may actually want to hear: “With regard to food: it should be abundant,” and “there is rarely danger that too much food will be taken, especially in the latter part of pregnancy. It is usually better to take four, five, or even six meals a day.” Speaking from experience this is welcome advice to any woman in her third trimester!

-Rachael Fraser, TAlint student