Nerve Force and Neurasthenia
The notion of nerve force has a venerable ancestry, extending back to the animal spirits that figured in classical medicine. Whatever physical properties Victorian and Edwardian medical men assigned to nerve force, they all concurred in warning that every person possessed only limited amounts. Heedless overexertion, whether mental or physical, could drain an individual's supply, leaving an exhausted nervous system incapable of all endeavors. Failure of nervous power meant utter incapacitation. From the 1880s to World War I, however, the new diagnostic category of neurasthenia seemed to impart not merely enhanced medical legitimacy, but also real distinction, to the sundry symptoms of depression formerly subsumed under the less specific concept of nervous prostration. Occupying so prominent a place in the late Victorian and Edwardian literature on the nerves, the concept of neurasthenia figured centrally in the tangled mass of conflicting medical attitudes concerning the impact of modem civilization on human health.
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