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  Chain of events leads Avila professor to write book about (in)famous historical figure  
  Kansas City, MO    
October 7, 2010

Little did Nancy Cervetti know that a dissertation she worked on many years ago would eventually lead to what she herself calls "an obsession" over the last 15 years.

While a graduate student in the early 1990s at the University of Iowa, Cervetti, an English professor in Avila University's College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences for the past 18 years, wrote a dissertation on three famous British authors, including Virginia Woolf. While researching her dissertation, Cervetti discovered that Woolf had been treated for mental instability with what's known as a "rest cure." A rest cure was a controversial method of treatment for women in the 19th century that typically involved 4-6 weeks of isolation in bed coupled with a high-caloric diet. Cervetti's interest in Woolf led her to investigate the creator of these "rest cures" - S. Weir Mitchell.

"In women's studies, a lot of scholars talk about Mitchell and the rest cure in a negative way," Cervetti said. "But if anyone really knows his story, they know his life was about much more than rest cures."

Cervetti's biography, "From Rattlesnakes to Rest Cures: The Life and Work of S. Weir Mitchell, M.D.," is the story of Mitchell's experimentation not only with rest cures to treat hysteria and neurasthenia, but his studies of venomous snakes and his groundbreaking work with Civil War soldiers with phantom limbs and burning pain.

After all, who knew that Mitchell is often referred to as the Father of American neurology? Or, that he was the first to coin the phrases "phantom limb" and "causalgia"? He also published 13 novels, including historical works about the American Revolution and the Civil War, as well as several volumes of poetry.

Cervetti took the first of two sabbaticals from Avila in 2000 to travel around the U.S. and Canada, seeking out the letters of S. Weir Mitchell. She received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to do this travel and archival work.

"At first, I was thinking of publishing a collection of letters," said Cervetti, who estimated that she has read and transcribed around 800 - 900 of Mitchell's letters. But, then, someone suggested writing a modern biography. Born in 1829, Mitchell went to Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, studied in Europe in his 20s, and embarked on extensive experimentation with rattlesnakes and their venom, searching for an antidote. He joined the Union army during the Civil War as a contract surgeon and developed techniques to treat injuries to nerves caused by gunshot wounds. Eventually, he established a nerve hospital in his hometown of Philadelphia.

"It was after the Civil War that he began to make the transition from the organic to the psychiatric," Cervetti said. "He worked a lot with neurasthenia, or what we call depression."

Cervetti said she has found a lot of appreciation and praise for Mitchell among history of medicine and science scholars. But many humanities scholars only think of Mitchell as a misogynist. Cervetti finds dealing with this interdisciplinary tension energizing and challenging.

Cervetti took a second, year-long sabbatical from Avila in 2007 and sat down to write the book. She finished with twelve chapters and about 250 pages. Pennsylvania State University Press will publish the biography once the remaining work is completed—the editing, sourcing and indexing—and Cervetti hopes to see the biography in print sometime next year.

"Jan. 4, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of Mitchell's death," she said, "and the timing seems right to reveal the rich detail and contradictions of his complex and surprising life."


About Avila University
Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.