Angora Cats or Lap Poodles?

In which early 20th century medical science awes me.

I was reviewing a peer’s text encoding work for the Indiana Authors and Their Books digitization project (site not yet public) and found this gem from a medical text, Worry and Nervousness, or, the Science of Self-Mastery, by William S. Sadler, M.D. (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914). All emphasis below is my own.


The nerve hygiene of single people, childless married people, old maids, bachelors, widows, and widowers, deserves special attention. As a class these people are given to a great deal of thinking about themselves, while they are usually quite without a definite aim and purpose in life. There is a great tendency for this class to become selfish, self-centered, while the tender emotions of natural affection and love are so little exercised that the unselfish social instincts become stunted. There is a great tendency to develop a peculiar temperament and an eccentric disposition.

When a woman has neither a husband nor a child to love, she is altogether likely to develop an inordinate fondness for angora cats or lap poodles. Likewise, when men do not have their better natures drawn out and their unselfish instincts developed by the responsibilities and care of a family, they become, as a rule, more and more self-centered in all their thoughts and plans.

It is absolutely necessary in the interests of nervous hygiene that all persons without family and all married persons without children should develop some specialized hobby in art, science, literature, or philanthropy, and assiduously devote themselves to their choice–literally to bestow their heart’s affection upon their work, in the absence of husband, wife or children. A failure to have some definite humanitarian object upon which to bestow one’s affections, upon which to lavish one’s labor, will be attended by the penalty of developing the hermit’s disposition; unhappiness and disease can be the only result of such a solitary existence. If intelligent men and women will not marry and have children, then nature exacts, as the price of their continued health and happiness, that they raise up and nourish worthy objects of science, art, literature, and sociology.

I don’t have much to say about this really, the passage just tickled me and I thought I’d share. Well, OK, I have one or two four observations. And I’m not at all feeling defensive. Nope.

  1. ALL men, by their natures, are slime from birth; it is impregnation and marriage–but not in that order–that draws out mankind’s hitherto latent “better nature.” ALL women, on the other hand, start out as good, nurturing, selfless creatures and remain so throughout their lives, unless they fail to pop out of few children or get hitched (but not in that order). The later category of women turn into total bitches.
  2. No one worked in 1914 America. Not women. Not men. Americans at the beginning of the 20th century sat around idle until they got about life’s business of getting themselves knocked up and espoused, only not in that order. Those who did neither continued to sit around idle. How fortunate that those of us single and/or childless in the 21st century have TVs and computer screens to stare at while we do all of this idle sitting!
  3. Intelligent men and women are expected to procreate and tie the knot–but not in that order!–while absolutely nothing is expected of stupid people. In fact, it was hoped that all stupid people wouldn’t spawn at all.
  4. The medical profession in the early 1900s, unfettered by the experiments and clinical studies that frequently sabotage modern medicine, found reasons to justify moral, religious and societal norms through an extremely complicated and technical process called science. The scientific process is far too complex to explain here, but it includes the processes of fuzzy logic and making stuff up that sounds right.

I mock this passage for being out-dated and backward but the sentiments are still prevalent today. This passage (indeed, this whole book) is pretty hard on women (having a period means that your nervous state is suspect from the start!) but this line of thought doesn’t do men any favors either. There is only one truly acceptable outcome and those who do not or choose not to comply are medically deficient. So how much of this is ludicrous in light of today’s cultural expectations of relationships and families? Do we still cling to any of these sentiments?

Oh and sorry Russ, I know you’d prefer a cat but I’m horribly allergic. Lap poodles sound horrid though. Our course of action is obvious. We must have a pony.