Americanitis, a pathology of the nineteenth century in the US

Americanitis, a pathology of the nineteenth century in the US

In another article we refer to the Drapetomania. In this we will analyze another diagnostic typology called Americanitis that, like the previous one, cannot be understood outside the historical and social context in which it was proposed. As we said before, psychopathological diagnoses express the changes in the subjectivity of people, so that different types of diagnosis correspond to each historical moment.


  • 1 Origin of Americanitis
  • 2 The American lifestyle and mental health
  • 3 Fighting Americanitis
  • 4 The Great Depression in the US and the disappearance of Americanitis
  • 5 Americanitis vs Neurasthenia

Origin of Americanitis

In the second half of the nineteenth century, profound changes were experienced in American society. The defeat of the southern oligarchies in the Civil War (1860-1865) meant the unification of the country under the leadership of the capitalist north. Immediately finished the contest began a accelerated westward expansion process, in which explorers, trappers, miners, cowboys and adventurers of all kinds participated. The lands taken from the original inhabitants were distributed to small farmers or farmers free of charge or at a low cost, which allowed the development of agricultural production and the economy in general. A considerable percentage of these lands were handed over to railway companies and to the newly created States for the promotion of education and transport.

At the end of the 19th century a Railroad crossed all of North America, from California to New York, passing through territory still populated by native communities and herds of thousands of bison. All this together with the state promotion for industrial development and technological innovation was what led to that by 1917, when he entered World War I, the United States was a world power. By the 1920s it was the first mass consumption society in history (1).

What is Americanitis?

In this context, the diagnosis of Americanitis, to refer to a particular type of anxiety disorder that affected American society. The origin of the term is unknown. An 1882 medical journal attributed it to an English scientist who visited the country in previous years. The writer Annie Payson Call (1853-1940), in her book Power Through Repose (1891), attributed it to a German doctor. The "father of American psychology" William James (1842-1910) is also often referred to as the inventor of the term (2).

The American lifestyle and mental health

The idea that the American pace of life of the time had adverse health effects was not a novelty. Already in 1871 the military doctor Jacob Mendes Da Costa (1833-1900) had coined the term of Neurocirculatory asthenia or Irritable Heart Syndrome, although this picture became better known as Soldier Heart Syndrome for diagnosing mainly veterans and survivors of the Civil War. Symptoms included palpitations, precordial oppression, choking sensation and chronic fatigue (3). However it was the coining of the specific term of Americanitis the one that ended up being legitimized in medical and scientific circles. The psychiatrist William S. Sadler (1875-1969) defined it as “the rush, the hustle and the incessant impulse of the American temperament" what it could cause high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, heart attack, neuroticism and exhaustion, and could lead to madness.

The American Medical Association recognized the condition in 1898 and attributed its causes to the changes that were taking place in a rapidly industrialized society: the increase in street noise by factories, electrical lighting that affected the rhythms of sleep and the development of means of transport that gave people a false need for urgency. Quickly the concept passed into everyday speech to refer to a pathological mixture of urgency and concern.

Soon it became a Universal diagnosis to explain any type of physical, psychological and social ailment. In 1907 the media attributed to the americanitis the death of meat entrepreneur Nelson Morris (born 1838). The outstanding professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) William Thompson Sedgwick (1855-1921) considered her responsible for the worsening eyesight of Americans. In 1912 a Harvard professor blamed her for the rising divorce rate, and in 1922 the president of the Department of Psychology at the University of Iowa said that jazz and the "flappers girls" (kind of "urban tribe" of the time) they were manifestations of this pathology (4).

Fighting Americanitis

Popular dissemination magazines offered tips to combat americanitis that included the take time to do things, not be in such a hurry, play more with children, eat more slowly, eat more fruits and vegetables, reduce call or correspondence lists, work less hours, go for a walk or play sports. As we can see, they do not differ much from those tips offered today to combat stress.

On the other hand, the pharmaceutical industry did not miss the possibility of doing business With this fashionable disease. The Rexall company launched the Elixir americanitis, which promoted "for each family member, except the dog" The commercials promised "relief to over-demanded businessmen"at"nervous, overworked and careless women"And the children"thin or nervous"At risk of becoming"invalid for life" Among other ingredients, the elixir contained 15 percent alcohol and some chloroform. Its price was around 75 cents a bottle. There are those who proposed the electroshocks therapy to "restore normal brain function" (5).

It seems that these remedies were not very efficient because in 1925, the magazine Time and other media outlets reproduced Sadler's estimates - which he gave lectures and had written a book about it - that the americanitis The lives of 240,000 people per year were claimed, the main affected being men between 40 and 50 years old (6).

The Great Depression in the US and the disappearance of Americanitis

Despite this the days of americanitis They were already counted and it was not the treatments that ended her. On October 29, 1929 there was the fall of the New York Stock Exchange, beginning the World Economic crisis or Great Depression, as it was known in the United States. The crisis radically modified the way of life throughout the country. The industries began to close, wages fell sharply (by 1932 they were 60% lower than 1929), unemployment affected 8 million people, suicides multiplied in the male population, and the hoovervilles ("Misery villas", precarious hamlets) and "popular pots" (7). People were no longer in a hurry or complaining about overwork. The diagnoses of americanitis they began to disappear and, soon after, this "disease" was a curiosity in the history of psychopathology.

Americanitis vs Neurasthenia

Currently there is a tendency to consider the Americanitis as the American equivalent of what in Europe was known at the same time as Neurasthenia. In fact, if you write "Americanitis" in some digital medical dictionaries, the search engine redirects you to the term "Neurasthenia" (8). The same happens in Wikipedia, both in its English and Spanish version. The neurasthenia It was described by the American doctor George Beard (1839-1883) as a disease of nervous origin that presented symptoms similar to americanitis: physical fatigue, headaches, dyspepsia and constipation. Later Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) would include it in the so-called "Current Neuroses" (next to the Anguish Neurosis and the Hypochondria) and would attribute a present sexual origin unrelated to childhood traumatic situations (9).

Another trend is to associate it with GAD or Generalized anxiety disorder (F41.1). The DSM-V defines this table by the following characteristics: excessive worry, problems to control the worry and physiological symptoms (restlessness, fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, sleep problems) that cannot be attributed to substance use, organic disease or other mental disorder (10 ). The ICD-10 it includes similar symptoms, but what the difference in the American manual is that it specifically excludes Neurasthenia (F48.0) in the diagnosis of GAD (11).

But beyond the similarities we can find with current diagnoses, the americanitis It must be understood within a specific context and as the clinical expression of the vertiginous changes that occurred in the United States at the time it was postulated.


(1) Bianchi, Suzanne; Social History of the Western World: from feudalism to contemporary society, Bernal, Editorial of the National University of Quilmes, 2009, pp. 121-122; Y Azcuy Ameghino, Eduardo; History Trenches, Buenos Aires, Imago Mundi, 2004, pp. 150-162.

(2) DaughertyGreg "The Brief History of Americanitis",, March 25, 2015.

(3) //

(4) (5) (6) DaughertyGreg "The Brief History ...", op. cit.

(7) Bianchi, Suzanne; Social History of the Western World ... , pp. 217-219.

(8) An example can be seen at: //

(9) Lagache, Daniel (dir.), Laplanche, Jean and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand; Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Buenos Aires, Paidos, 2015, pp. 235-236.

(10) American Psyquiatric Association; DSM-V Diagnostic Criteria Reference Guide, Washington-London, 2014, pp. 137-138.

(11) WHO; ICD 10: International Statistical Classification of diseases and health-related problems, Washington, Pan American Health Organization, 1995, chap. V.

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