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Never repress your tears

May 7, 2012

Queen Mary, University of London – by Thomas Dixon

Angharad Jones/Wellcome Images

Angharad Jones/Wellcome Images

Tears have functioned historically in many different ways: as public gestures, acts of lamentation, signs of sympathy or expressions of various emotions. The Victorian judge Sir James Shaw Willes was noted for weeping while hearing evidence and passing sentence during the 1850s and 1860s. In the year of Willes’s death, however, Charles Darwin gave his scientific imprimatur to what would become a more widespread, and more restrained, national stereotype. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), Darwin wrote that “Englishmen rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief; whereas in some parts of the Continent the men shed tears much more readily and freely.”

Tears have figured frequently in the history of medicine, too, being interpreted variously as signs of health or disease. Charles Darwin’s grandfather, the physician Erasmus Darwin, treated a wide range of passions of the mind, including anger and grief, as “Diseases of Volition”. In his wide-ranging philosophical and scientific work, Zoonomia (1794–96), he included “sympathetic tears” in his inventory of mental diseases. He thought that tears could occasionally be a good symptom, too, however, when they showed that the sensitive system had taken over from the disordered activities of volition and intellect, which could accompany pathological grief.

A notable example of tears signalling a return to mental health occurred in the case of George III in 1789. The King had become temporarily insane, but his physician, Dr Francis Willis, reported to Parliament that his majesty had derived great benefit from being allowed to see his wife and daughters. A brief glimpse of his daughters had had the effect of “softening him into tears”. These great “marks of parental affection” were considered by Willis to be a favourable symptom, which suggested a cure was imminent.

In the 19th century, John Bucknill and Daniel Hack Tuke offered a succinct summary of the meanings of tears as medical symptoms in their Manual of Psychological Medicine (fourth edition, 1879): “A copious flow of tears is often a very good sign, but must not be confounded with the emotional sensibility which indicates deep-seated disease of the nerve centres. These are as distinct as the rush of the mountain torrent after the removal of some obstruction, and the stream caused by the bursting of a water pipe.” The physician’s job, then, was to learn to distinguish between these two cases. When were tears a rushing mountain torrent, and when a burst water pipe?

Given Charles Darwin’s comments about the greater proficiency of continentals when it came to tearfulness, it is appropriate that it was often to French medical authorities that British readers were referred for the latest advice about weeping. So, for instance, readers of the British Mothers’ Magazine in September 1849 were informed that the French physician Armand Trousseau maintained that sick children who shed tears were more likely to recover. In 1857, the Friendly Companion and Illustrated Instructor carried a similar item, headed ‘Never repress your tears’, reporting that a lengthy dissertation had been published by a French physician on the “beneficial influence of groaning and crying on the nervous system”.

This last source proved particularly intriguing. Further research revealed that this news story about a French medical man’s lengthy dissertation on the benefits of crying and groaning had been appearing in British and American periodicals and newspapers on and off since 1819 (and indeed continued to do so at least until the 1890s). Over almost the entire 19th century, then, this anonymous Frenchman, sometimes described as a surgeon, sometimes as a physician, sometimes as having written his tome on tears “lately” and sometimes “many years ago”, reappears time and again. The earliest version of the story I have found was published in the Monthly Gazette of Health in London in December 1819, and although the author and work are not named, the most likely candidate for the original dissertation is a work entitled Considérations générales sur les larmes et les pleurs, presented to the Paris medical faculty by one P H Prévencher in May 1818. This dissertation, in turn, relies very heavily (in some cases, word for word) on a dissertation submitted to the Paris faculty on the same subject by another medical student in 1812.

In addition to shedding light on the histories of emotions, of national stereotypes, and of plagiarisms perpetrated by students and journalists, this research offers a new perspective on recent scientific and medical theories of tears. Experiments conducted by William Frey and others since the 1980s have sought to demonstrate that ‘emotional tears’ have a different chemical composition from tears produced by physical irritation. This would not have been news to the authors of those early-19th-century French medical treatises, both of whom reported that tears produced by strong passions had a different chemical composition from tears produced by other causes. Indeed, so important was this distinction that a different term was used for each: les larmes as the general term for any kind of tears and les pleurs referring to those produced by dark feelings and strong passions.

In this case, then, as in the history of emotions more broadly, the affective life of the past can only be reconstituted through the languages and theories, as well as the material culture and social practices, which prevailed at the time. And in all these domains the contributions of science and medicine have been of particular importance in changing modern minds.

Thomas Dixon is Senior Lecturer in the School of History and Director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London.

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