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The history of a controversial ‘condition’

For centuries, doctors readily diagnosed women with “hysteria,” an alleged mental health condition that explained away any behaviors or symptoms that made men…uncomfortable.

A fondness of writing, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and even infertility — for the best part of two centuries, all of these and more could easily fall under the umbrella of “female hysteria.”

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, female hysteria was one of the most commonly diagnosed “disorders.” But the mistaken notion that women are somehow predisposed to mental and behavioral conditions is much older than that.

In fact, the term hysteria originated in Ancient Greece. Hippocrates and Plato spoke of the womb, hystera, which they said tended to wander around the female body, causing an array of physical and mental conditions.

But what was female hysteria supposed to be, what were its symptoms, how did doctors “treat” it, and when did they cease to diagnose it as a medical condition?

These are some of the questions that we answer in this Curiosities of Medical History feature.

While the original notions of female hysteria extend far into the history of medicine and philosophy, this diagnostic became popular in the 18th century.

In 1748, French physician Joseph Raulin described hysteria as a “vaporous ailment” — affection vaporeuse in French — an illness spread through air pollution in large urban areas.

While Raulin noted that both men and women could contract hysteria, women were, according to him, more predisposed to this ailment because of their lazy and irritable nature.

In a treatise published in 1770–1773, another French physician, François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, describes hysteria as something akin to emotional instability, “subject to sudden changes with great sensibility of the soul.”

Some of the hysteria symptoms that he named included: “a swollen abdomen, suffocating angina [chest pain] or dyspnea [shortness of breath], dysphagia [difficulty swallowing], […] cold extremities, tears and laughter, oscitation [yawning], pandiculation [stretching and yawning], delirium, a close and driving pulse, and abundant and clear urine.”

De Sauvages agreed with his predecessors that this condition primarily affected women, and that “men are only rarely hysterical.”

According to him, sexual deprivation was often the cause of female hysteria. To illustrate this, he presented the case study of a nun affected by hysteria, who became cured only when a well-wishing barber took it upon himself to pleasure her.

Another means of “treating” instances of hysteria was through mesmerism, an alleged psychosomatic therapy popularized by Franz Anton Mesmer, a German doctor who was active in 18th-century Europe.

Mesmer believed that living beings were influenced by magnetism, an invisible current that ran through animals and humans, and whose imbalances or fluctuations could lead to health disruptions.

Mesmer alleged that he could act on this magnetic undercurrent and cure humans of various maladies, including hysteria.

Throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was perhaps even more talk of female hysteria and its potential causes.

Around the 1850s, American physician Silas Weir

America’s history of racism was a preexisting condition for COVID-19

A Louisiana pastor prays as his parishioners die, first from cancer and now from COVID-19. An Indigenous community in New Mexico lacks adequate health care as the death toll mounts. A sick hospital worker in New Jersey frets about infecting others in her heavily populated neighborhood.

a group of people standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Parishioners stand in Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Reserve, LA, during a sermon by Rev. Fr. Christopher Chike Amadi.

© Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Parishioners stand in Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in Reserve, LA, during a sermon by Rev. Fr. Christopher Chike Amadi.

As the country cries out for a vaccine and a return to normal, lost in the policy debates is the reality that COVID-19 kills far more people of color than white Americans. This isn’t a matter of coincidence, poor choices or bad luck – it’s by design. 

A team of USA TODAY reporters explored how the policies of the past and present have made Black, Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous Americans prime targets for COVID-19. They found:

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America’s education and economic systems are still unequal, disproportionately leaving people of color out of higher-wage jobs. When COVID-19 struck, more people of color were serving as essential workers directly in the path of the virus.

Decades of discrimination in housing corralled people of color into tightly packed neighborhoods, fueling the virus’ spread. Those neighborhoods tend to lie in “food deserts,” leading to diabetes, obesity and heart disease that make people more likely to die from the virus.

Environmental policies designed by white power brokers at the expense of the poor has poisoned the air they breathe, fueling cancers and leaving communities weakened in the path of the virus. A lack of federal funding left the most vulnerable communities cut off from healthcare at the most critical moment.

Put simply, America’s history of racism was itself a preexisting condition.

Of the 10 U.S. counties with the highest death rates from COVID-19, seven have populations where people of color make up the majority, according to data compiled by USA TODAY. Of the top 50 counties with the highest death rates, 31 are populated mostly by people of color. 

“COVID-19 has brought out into the open, with painful clarity, these divisions in our society that have been there for a long time but, for one reason or another, people were able to overlook them,” said Philip Landrigan, director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College.

With nearly 1,000 people a day dying from the virus and scientists scrambling to grasp exactly how the virus spreads and kills, federal and state data has not provided enough demographic detail to show the full impact on communities of color. The race and ethnicity of people who contract the virus is known in 52% of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

But study after study has shown clear patterns in whom the virus kills.

How systemic racism led to COVID-19’s rapid spread among people of color



Black people are more than

As Trump’s condition makes headlines, America’s pandemic is getting worse

The extraordinary attention generated by President Donald Trump’s fight with Covid-19 has obscured an alarming turn in a pandemic that is showing signs of accelerating as colder weather approaches, with 2,000 new America deaths recorded since he was diagnosed.

a man talking on a cell phone: WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 02: U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the South Lawn of the White House on October 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

© Drew Angerer/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 02: U.S. President Donald Trump leaves the White House for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on the South Lawn of the White House on October 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have both tested positive for coronavirus. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Cases of Covid-19 are rising in 22 states and are falling in only five, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, and the death toll in the United States is approaching 210,000. Yet there are few signs, despite the virus sweeping through the White House and infecting Trump allies on Capitol Hill of any fresh White House appreciation of the danger or a plan to try to slow the spread of the disease.


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The latest close Trump associate to return positive tests were White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany along with two other press aides. There is little indication that the administration has undertaken a serious effort to contact and trace people who were at a Supreme Court nominating event nine days ago at the White House that appears to have infected multiple people. There are no official briefings warning Americans about what they need to do to mitigate the worsening situation. And the government experts who once were front and center are never seen alongside the President.

Trump did say he had learned a lot about Covid-19 during his stay in Walter Reed military hospital where he was taken on Friday, but the main focus of the President’s aides has been projecting him as strong 29 days ahead of an election in which he appears to be in considerable trouble. The President’s drive-by photo-op Sunday in front of supporters gathered with flags and banners outside Walter Reed reflected how he has consistently put his own personal and political goals ahead of a serious approach to the worst public health emergency in 100 years.

On Friday, when Trump went into the hospital, the United States recorded more than 54,000 new cases of the virus and 906 deaths. On Saturday, close to 50,000 new cases were reported along with 687 deaths. And on Sunday, there were 36,600 cases and 410 deaths according to Johns Hopkins figures collected by CNN. Tallies at the weekend are generally lower due to the difficulty of reporting.

Such numbers utterly contradict the message that Trump was giving hours before he was diagnosed with the disease himself, that the US was “turning the corner” and that “the end of the pandemic is in sight.”

The newly diagnosed patients will not have the state-of-the-art facilities, experimental treatments and dedicated hospital suites that are afforded to the President of the United States. Many patients in the pandemic have died

Serious coronavirus-related inflammatory condition among children now reported in adults: CDC

A rare but serious coronavirus-related inflammatory condition in children was also recently identified among adults, per a report released Friday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) usually involves shock, heart malfunction, stomach pain and hyperinflammation. The CDC drew on reports of 27 adult patients to describe a new, similar condition —  multisystem inflammatory syndrome in adults (MIS-A).


“These 27 patients had cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, dermatologic, and neurologic symptoms without severe respiratory illness and concurrently received positive test results for SARS-CoV-2…,” per the report. Fortunately, the vast majority (24 of 27) of MIS-A patients survived, which was said to mirror outcomes seen in MIS-C patients treated in intensive health care settings.

There is still much unknown over MIS-A, with a deal of uncertainty over the timeline from SARS-CoV-2 infection to MIS-A onset, but the report suggests “MIS-A and MIS-C might represent postinfectious processes.” Adults who reported typical COVID-19 symptoms went on to develop MIS-A about two to five weeks later.

Patients with MIS-A may not test positive for COVID-19, given the onset of the syndrome weeks later. The agency emphasized the importance of antibody testing for previous SARS-CoV-2 infection to recognize and treat MIS-A.

Of the 27 MIS-A patients included in the report, 30% of them, along with “45% of 440 children with MIS-C reported to CDC through July 29,” tested negative for current SARS-CoV-2 infection but had positive antibody results.

There is still much unknown over MIS-A, a newly identified coronavirus-related complication in adults that had previously been reported among children. (iStock)

There is still much unknown over MIS-A, a newly identified coronavirus-related complication in adults that had previously been reported among children. (iStock)


The criteria used to identify MIS-A include severe illness requiring hospitalization in patients over age 21; current or previous SARS-CoV-2 infection in the past 12 weeks; severe dysfunction of one or more organs other than the lungs; lab evidence of severe inflammation and a lack of severe respiratory illness.

Patients were mostly treated with corticosteroids among other treatments like vasopressors (to raise blood pressure) or blood thinners.

The report also noted that “all but one” of the patients in the report were among racial or ethnic minorities, adding that “MIS-C has also been reported disproportionately in these communities.” However, due to the small sample size, the CDC said more research is needed before making conclusions about the burden of MIS-A in various groups.

“Findings indicate that adult patients of all ages with current or previous SARS-CoV-2 infection can develop a hyperinflammatory syndrome resembling MIS-C,” authors wrote, adding that measures to limit COVID-19 spread may help prevent MIS-A.


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Dr. Inglesby examines Trump’s coronavirus condition: What we’ve heard is ‘largely encouraging’

President Trump seems to be doing well since his coronavirus diagnosis, Dr. Inglesby of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told “Fox News Sunday.”

“The news we heard yesterday was largely encouraging,” he said. “The fact that the president is not requiring oxygen, that a number of lab tests were reported to be normal and he was able to deliver that video yesterday.”

But Inglesby said White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ announcement that the president required oxygen on Friday was “worrisome” and it would be helpful to know the results of some other tests presumably conducted at Walter Reed Medical Center such as a chest x-ray or CT scan.


According to the CDC, about one-third of COVID-19 patients above the age of 65 required hospitalizations leading up to June 2020, and eight out of 10 people in the same age group died.

President Donald Trump arrives at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, on Marine One helicopter after he tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

President Donald Trump arrives at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, on Marine One helicopter after he tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Inglesby explained that symptoms can worsen quickly within a 5-10 day period, especially among people in Trump’s age group and with underlying conditions.

“The president is receiving extraordinary care and looks like he’s doing well but it’s certainly a serious disease for people his age,” he said. “It’s very difficult to judge [his recovery] at this time.”

Large public events such as Trump’s rallies should no longer be permitted during the pandemic, Inglesby said, since the virus is easily spread through projected voice and the president and his team neglect to follow masking guidelines.

“When the commission sets rules for preventing transmission during debates, they should be followed,” he said.


Inglesby suggested that future debates be held virtually due to the “unanticipated, very large risks” surrounding them.

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Doctor says he downplayed the severity of Trump’s condition

Dr. Sean Conley said Sunday that the president’s blood oxygen level have improved after it dropped twice recently

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) — President Donald Trump’s blood oxygen level dropped suddenly twice in recent days, but he “has continued to improve” since then, the White House physician said Sunday, adding a new layer of confusion to the president’s fight with COVID-19 even while suggesting he could be discharged from the hospital as early as Monday.

Trump’s doctors, speaking on the steps of the military hospital where he was being treated for a third consecutive day, refused to disclose the specific timing of the president’s dip in oxygen or whether lung scans showed any damage.

Navy Cmdr. Dr. Sean Conley acknowledged he was trying to downplay the severity of the president’s condition the day before.

Dr. Sean Conley, physician to President Donald Trump, briefs reporters at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Trump was admitted to the hospital after contracting the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Dr. Sean Conley, physician to President Donald Trump, briefs reporters at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Trump was admitted to the hospital after contracting the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“I was trying to reflect the upbeat attitude of the team, that the president, that his course of illness has had. Didn’t want to give any information that might steer the course of illness in another direction,” Conley said. “And in doing so, came off like we’re trying to hide something, which wasn’t necessarily true. The fact of the matter is that he’s doing really well.”

Conley said the president had a “high fever” and a blood oxygen level below 94% on Friday and during “another episode” on Saturday. He was evasive when asked whether Trump’s level had dropped below 90%: “We don’t have any recordings here on that.”

The level currently stands at 98%, Trump’s medical team said.

Trump offered his own assessment of his status the night before in a video from his hospital suite, saying he was beginning to feel better and hoped to “be back soon.” And he was back on social media early Sunday morning, sharing a video of flag-waving supporters, most not wearing masks, gathered outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

READ MORE: Concerning signs in Trump’s care despite word he’s doing OK

The changing, and at times contradictory, accounts created a credibility crisis for the White House at a crucial moment, with the president’s health and the nation’s leadership on the line. Moreover, the president’s health represents a national security issue of paramount importance not only to the functions of the U.S. government but also to countries around the world, friendly and otherwise.

Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, pulled his attack ads off the air during Trump’s hospitalization, and on Sunday, he dispatched senior aides to deliver a largely friendly message.

“We are sincerely hoping that the president makes a very quick recovery, and we can see him back out on the campaign trail very soon,” Biden adviser Symone Sanders said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

She added: “This is a glaring reminder that the virus is

White House acknowledges Trump’s condition had been worse than revealed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows revealed that President Donald Trump’s condition on Friday was far worse than officials had made public, saying doctors recommended the president go to the hospital after seeing he had a fever and his blood oxygen level dropped rapidly.

a man wearing a suit and tie: FILE PHOTO: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks to reporters about President Trump's health after he was tested positive for COVID19

© Reuters/KEN CEDENO
FILE PHOTO: White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speaks to reporters about President Trump’s health after he was tested positive for COVID19

Meadows made the comments in an interview with Fox News broadcast Saturday night that capped two days of conflicting and opaque assessments of the 74-year-old president’s health.

“I can tell you this the biggest thing we see is with no fever now, and with him doing really well with his oxygen saturation levels,” Meadows told Fox host Jeanine Pirro. “Yesterday morning we were really concerned by that. He had a fever, and his oxygen level had dropped rapidly. Yet in typical style, this president was up and walking around.”

White House officials including Meadows said on Friday that Trump was experiencing “mild symptoms” and continuing to work. He told Fox News however, that doctors from Walter Reed and Johns Hopkins recommended that Trump go to the hospital.

“He’s made unbelievable improvements from yesterday morning when I know a number of us, the doctor and I, were very concerned,” Meadows said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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President’s condition ‘concerning,’ WH messages mixed


White House physician Sean P. Conley gave an update on President Trump’s health from Walter Reed hospital, saying he was “doing very well.”


WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s condition after receiving a diagnosis of COVID-19 was “very concerning,” a White House official told the Associated Press, a sober assessment that raised new questions about the extent of the president’s illness. 

The president’s vitals over the past daywere “very concerning” and the next 48 hours will be critical for his care, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told the Associated Press. 

The course of COVID-19 can be highly variable, but the next three to five days are likely to be crucial, physicians who have treated hundreds of coronavirus patients told USA TODAY.

Meadows’ assessment was more disquieting than the one offered Saturday by White House physician Sean Conley — who said the president was “doing very well” — the latest in a series of mixed messages from officials about the president’s condition since Trump tested positive for the virus.   

White House officials initially said Trump had a “mild” case of COVID-19after testing positive late Thursday and moving to the Walter Reed Medical Center on Friday evening. Trump disclosed the results in a tweet early Friday morning and was seen walking to Marine One that evening for the short helicopter journey to the hospital. 

Conley said Saturday the president had been fever free for 24 hours and was not receiving oxygen.Conley said Trump experienced a mild cough, nasal congestion and fatigue on Thursday, “all of which are now resolving and improving.”

Walter Reed referred questions about Conley’s briefing Saturday back to the White House.

Breaking a more than 12-hour silence on Twitter, Trump posted Saturday that he was “feeling well” and he praised the doctors, nurses and other staff at Walter Reed. He later tweeted encouragement to members of Congress to approve an economic stimulus for the pandemic. 

Doctors repeatedly said Trump, 74, was not on oxygen Saturday but did not answer specific questions about whether he had received it previously, though Trump’s medical team denied a report Friday that the president was having trouble breathing.  

“He’s not on oxygen right now,” Conley said, adding that Trump had an oxygen saturation level of 96%, within the normal range for a healthy person 

But Conley declined to rule out that Trump had received oxygen Friday before heading to the hospital and the Associated Press, citing an unnamed source, reported that oxygen had been administered in that period. 

White House officials declined to answer questions from USA TODAY about whether oxygen was administered.  

What to know about oxygen levels

Doctors monitor oxygen in blood as an

What We Do & Don’t Know Right Now About Donald Trump’s Condition After COVID-19 Infection

Win McNamee/Getty Images Donald Trump at Tuesday’s debate

President Donald Trump announced early Friday morning that he and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19.

Trump, 74, has long sought to downplay the novel coronavirus in the last seven months, contending at times that the highly contagious respiratory illness is a political “hoax” and just last week saying that it “affects virtually nobody.”

Including the president, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 7.3 million people in the U.S. and has killed at least 207,699, according to a New York Times tracker.

“Tonight, @FLOTUS and I tested positive for COVID-19,” Trump tweeted. “We will begin our quarantine and recovery process immediately. We will get through this TOGETHER!”

White House doctor Sean Conley went on to clarify over the weekend that Trump was first diagnosed Thursday evening.

Here’s everything we know so far. This story will be updated.

Joshua Roberts/Getty Images Donald Trump

What Symptoms Has Trump Shown?

Although White House doctor Sean Conley initially said on Friday that the first couple planned on remaining at home as they recovered from COVID-19, later that day Trump was admitted to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center out of an “abundance of caution.”

“President Trump remains in good spirts, has mild symptoms, and has been working throughout the day,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday afternoon.

Conley offered more details about the president’s symptoms the following day.

During a Saturday press conference, he said Trump had been fever-free for 24 hours and that his other symptoms, which included fatigue “are now resolving and improving.” Conley also noted that the president was not currently receiving oxygen, although he evaded specific questions about Trump’s fever or whether he had ever received supplemental oxygen.

However, a source familiar with the president’s health offered conflicting information. “The president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were very concerning and the next 48 hours will be critical in terms of his care,” the source said, according to a White House pool report. “We’re still not on a clear path to recovery.”

Trump was last seen by reporters on Friday as he departed the White House for Walter Reed hospital and was seen wearing a mask and giving reporters a thumbs-up sign.

What Led to Trump’s Positive Test?

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty President Donald Trump

Trump’s positive result came after the news one of his top aides, Hope Hicks, had tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.

Hicks, a former 31-year-old public relations consultant, had reportedly been in the small group of confidants helping the president prepare for Tuesday’s debate. She also traveled with Trump on Air Force One to-and-from Minnesota on Wednesday evening for a campaign rally.

Several thousands showed up to the president’s outdoor rally, while pool reporters traveling with Trump noted “most” in the crowd did not wear masks. The president also met with local state lawmakers during private fundraising events in the state.

“It’s very, very hard when you

Experts urge transparency on president’s condition


President Trump’s doctor said Trump is not currently on oxygen, but would not say whether he ever received oxygen since his COVID-19 diagnosis.


In the first public briefing since President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, White House physician Dr. Sean Conley would not answer several questions about whether the president had been on oxygen at any point previously, if he had lung damage or when he last received a negative coronavirus test.

Conley, who has served as Physician to the President since 2018, appeared with a team of nine clinicians outside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for less than 20 minutes Saturday morning and fielded dozens of questions from reporters. Doctors said the president had been fever-free for over 24 hours, had received an experimental antibody therapy and was undergoing a five-day course of the drug remdesivir. 

“We remain cautiously optimistic, but he’s doing great,” Conley said.

But he also created confusion about the timeline of Trump’s diagnosis and the severity of his disease. Health and national security experts said the obfuscation was unnecessary and could continue to erode the administration’s credibility.

Your questions, answered: Who gave Trump coronavirus? What is the Regeneron antibody ‘cocktail’?

Asked repeatedly whether Trump had been on oxygen at any point, Conley gave at least eight variations of answers, ranging from “He’s not on oxygen right now” to “Right now, all indicators are that he’ll remain off of oxygen going forward.”

Ultimately, Conley said: “Thursday no oxygen, none at this moment, and yeah, yesterday with the team, while we were all here, he was not on oxygen.”

However, Trump was administered oxygen at the White House on Friday before leaving for Walter Reed, the Associated Press reported citing an unnamed source. White House officials declined to answer questions from USA TODAY about whether oxygen was administered.

In sharp contrast to Conley’s depiction, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told the Associated Press on Saturday that the president’s vitals over the last 24 hours were “very concerning” and the next 48 hours will be critical for his care.

Several health experts said it’s not uncommon for people with COVID-19 to have intermittent oxygen needs.

Early on in the course of the disease, the coronavirus can cause injury to the lungs by damaging the cells that allow oxygen to pass into the bloodstream, said Dr. Russell Buhr, a professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. 

“If those cells are damaged, we compensate by administering supplemental oxygen so the lungs are getting more oxygen than they would from the air in the room,” said Buhr, who has cared for over 100 patients with COVID-19. 

Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 tend to need a bit of oxygen when they first arrive at the hospital, often when they’ve already been sick at home for between three days and a week. 

Dr. Matthew G. Heinz, a hospital physician in Tucson, Arizona, said it’s standard procedure to provide any patient with oxygen