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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 13


THE first disorder to be mentioned under this head is also fortunately known only in the records of the past. Dr Edmondston tells us epilepsy was at one time very common in Zetland among the women. Writing in 1822, Dr Hibbert informs us that “the introduction of this malady into the country is referred to a date of nearly a century ago, and is attributed to a woman who had been subject to regular paroxysms of epilepsy, one of which occurred during divine service. Among adult females, and children of the male sex at the tender age of six, fits then became sympathetic.” Proceeding with his description of epilepsy, as he terms this affection, Dr Edmondston says:—“It appeared to be communicated from one person to another, on some occasions, as if by sympathy. Numbers were seized with fits, almost at the same time, in the church during divine service, especially if the weather was warm, the minister a pathetic preacher, or the patient desirous of being thought possessed of a more than ordinary show of feeling. The individuals thus affected cried aloud, beat themselves against the seats of the church, to the great annoyance of the more sedate part of the congregation.” Dr Hibbert describes a paroxysm somewhat more graphically thus :— “The female whom it had attacked would suddenly fall down, toss her arms about, writhe her body into various shapes, move her head suddenly from side to side, and, with eyes fixed and staring, send forth most dismal cries. If the fit had occurred on any occasion of public diversion, she would, as soon as it had. ceased, mix with her companions, and continue her amusement as if nothing had happened. Paroxysms of this kind prevailed most during the warm months of summer, and about fifty years ago there was scarcely a Sabbath on which they did not occur.” As to the etiology of these extraordinary manifestations, Dr Edmondston says they were “the effect of affectation, imagination, or sympathy.” In the opinion of Dr Hibbert, “strong passions of the mind, induced by religious enthusiasm, were the exciting causes of these fits.” They evidently arise from superpolarity of the nervous system, produced by the feelings or imagination, and communicated from one person to another by sympathy. The influence of sympathy in spreading these paroxysms is shewn by the circumstance that one woman, being seized with a fit, acted as a signal for a number of others to be similarly affected. The pathology of these epileptiform seizures is, however, best illustrated by a successful method of treatment, thus described by Dr Hibbert:—“An intelligent and pious minister of Shetland informed me that, being considerably anjioyed on his first introduction into the country by these paroxysms, whereby the devotions of the church were much impeded, he'obviated their repetition by assuring his parishioners, that no treatment was more effectual than immersion in cold water, and as his kirk was fortunately contiguous to a fresh-water lake, he gave notice that attendants should be at hand, during divine service, to ensure the proper means of cure. The sequel need scarcely be told. The fear of being carried out of the church and into the water, acted like a charm; not a single naiad was made, and the worthy minister has for many years had reason to boast of one of the best regulated congregations in Shetland.” Such seizures at church, during service, have, I understand, been long unknown; but a case presenting precisely similar symptoms, exhibited when the patient was confined to her own room, occurred a few years ago. The paroxysms were very severe, and very frequently repeated; and, on the arrival of Dr Cowie, who had been sent for, the patient’s parents told him she was dying, and that they knew he could do no good, but had merely called him, so that, after their daughter's death, they might have the consolation that she had been seen by a doctor. Believing these dreadful phenomena were the result of a depraved imagination, the doctor told his patient he perceived what was the matter, and, transgressing the rules of strict professional ethics, assured her, if she would submit to his treatment, he would cure her. The desired impression having been produced, Dr C. prescribed some coloured liquid having no therapeutic * virtues whatever, left the patient, and heard nothing of her till a month or two afterwards; when a strong, stout young woman, from the country, walked into his surgery, and her he, with some difficulty, recognised as the “ dying ” girl he had lately visited.

Hypochondriasis has been already noticed, along with dyspepsia, and therefore does not require to be again treated of here.

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