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Hysteria, Autism, and the Durability of Sheer Nonsense

Nonsense_logo_messyBy Dan Olmsted

Events have conspired this year to bring attention to psychiatry as it relates to autism and other disorders that we believe share environmental roots. The focus is not at all flattering.

There’s the American Psychiatric Association’s re-jiggering of the upcoming DSM-V so that the parameters of autistic disorder will change, fuzzing the real increase and making its environmental nature harder to discern. Then there’s French psychiatrists banning a documentary called The Wall, which portrays them (accurately) as clinging to the discredited parent-blaming paradigm.

There’s the book Anatomy of an Addiction by Howard Markel, which portrays Sigmund Freud as – how shall we put it -- coked out of his freaking mind while cooking up some of his big ideas. And there’s a well-received new film, A Dangerous Method, which describes how Freud and Jung dealt – poorly -- with a prominent case of “hysteria.”

The miserable performance of psychiatry on these fronts is not news to us. In our book The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, Mark Blaxill and I put forward a new theory about Freud’s first “hysteria” cases in the late 1800s. We argue that many if not most of those dozen or so case studies – which included both men and women – were actually organic illnesses triggered by toxins, and in particular by mercury exposure from medicine and manufacturing.

We won’t recapitulate that theory here (see our chapter, “The Age of Hysteria”) except to say that Freud himself noted that most of the severe patients he saw were tending fathers with long histories of syphilis – treated with mercury – or were otherwise employed in nursing – where mercury dressings and treatments were then standard. Our examination of his key case histories, from “Dora” to “Anna O.,” documented the close connection. In the case of Dora, Freud treated her father for syphilis before seeing her as a patient a few years later – having triggered, we believe, the very mental problems that he then treated as psychiatric! Nice work if you can get it.

It’s a simple and stark idea, and we seem to be the first to propose it. If we’re right, it’s consequential, calling into question the theories derived from such a fundamental mistake. And it supports our argument for a much longer and deeper history of mercury poisoning in humans than mainstream medicine has understood or is willing to acknowledge (the thesis of our book).

Take A Dangerous Method, which its producers describe thusly: “On the eve of World War I, Zurich and Vienna are the setting for a dark tale of sexual and intellectual discovery. Drawn from true-life events, A Dangerous Method explores the turbulent relationships between fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung, his mentor Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, the beautiful but disturbed young woman who comes between them.” The outcome forever changes “the face of modern thought.”

The latter is no doubt true. Freud and his apostles and apostates did indeed shape modern intellectual history. It was not just what went on in the 50-minute hour, but how we think about sexuality, the role of childhood and art and culture, and the relations between men and women. Which makes it worth examining what exactly was the matter with Sabina. According to one review on

“Keira Knightley … plays Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian woman who would go on to become a renowned psychoanalyst herself, but when we first see her, she’s a hysterical creature being carted off to a hospital, kicking and screaming, in a horse-drawn carriage. Michael Fassbender’s Jung is the doctor in charge of treating her, and she’s in the midst of a fit when he first sits her down: Her neck is drawn long and tight, her eyes pop, her jaw juts out so far it looks as if it might detach from her face.”

This description shows that classical hysteria went way beyond the “vapors” and fainting spells that we now tend to think of when we summon images of hysteria in Victorian-era women. These “fits” (seizures) are a consistent feature of hysteria, in both men and women, and they point not to an abusive or seductive Papa but to an environmental trigger.

In our book, we note how Freud’s mentor Charcot describes a gilder who works with mercury and has a “fit” while getting off a carriage. Charcot believes that there’s no problem working with mercury (barring an “accident”) and attributes his problems to family issues. But everyone now understands that working with mercury and other dangerous metals is hazardous per se, and that seizures are a well-known feature of mercury toxicity (as are so many of the other physical and mental features of “hysteria” – concentric narrowing of the visual field, peripheral neuropathy, gut problems, depression and suicidal thinking).

What, then, of Sabrina’s background? Let’s see, her father was a businessman and her mother, … well, her mother was a dentist.

A dentist! Is there a more mercury-centric occupation one could imagine for a woman in the late 1800s? Facts cluster around a good hypothesis, as they say, and here again you don’t have to go through contortions to find a link to mercury in the early reports of hysteria.

Yet mainstream media and medicine remain resolutely baffled when it comes to such environmental or – even more sensitive – iatrogenic or doctor-induced disorders. “Hysteria: Is the Medical Condition Medical, Physical, or Made-Up?” asked an article in The Daily Beast last month timed to the movie release.

“Today, the condition remains a mystery,” writes Casey Schwartz. “It has a new name—conversion disorder—and it accounts for 1 to 3 percent of all diagnoses in hospitals, making it more common than either multiple sclerosis or schizophrenia. Yet it is still poorly understood, and often misdiagnosed.”

Schwartz writes about Jon Stone, a neurologist at the University of Edinburgh. “One of his patients, a former nurse [!], developed an extreme conversion disorder in which her muscles involuntarily contracted into abnormal positions. ‘Her left leg is literally upside down,’ Stone says, so that ‘her toe is pressing into her buttock. She’s now been in bed for 25 years.’”

Why, you’d have to be a French psychiatrist to believe that’s a mental illness!

If only this were just a movie, and not an influential way of thinking that persists to this very day with such malignant consequences. For as we write in our book, Freud’s misdiagnosis of mercury poisoning as “hysteria” has echoed down through the history of autism.

In the 1940s, Leo Kanner overlooked the links to new organic mercury compounds in the family background of his first patients and instead succumbed to the Freudian idea of parental coldness as a factor.

In the 1950s and 60s, Bruno Bettelheim heaped “homicidal mothers” insanity on top of that. And the futile focus on genes has only confused the issue further.

Said one of the doctors we quote in our book, aghast that every generation seems to forget the toxic effects of mercury: “One can go forward and still go in circles.”


Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of The Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, published in paperback this fall by Thomas Dunne books.


ct teacher

Bendetta- I didn't know the thyroid tests were so expensive. Of course, my insurance paid so I didn't think about it. I get my thyroid checked twice a year, and the cost never entered my head. For those without insurance or good insurance it is another story of course. If a doctor recommends the test perhaps it would be covered. As to the test coming back normal, there is some controversy about what is considered normal. There are also other markers that a good endocrinologist looks for, such as an enlarged gland, hair loss, eyebrow loss, etc. Still, for those with many symptoms, and those who can afford it, an evaluation of the endocrine system might be worthwhile. The entire body-brain connection is affected by a disruption of the endocrine system.


CT teacher Lisa also mentioned this.
You get a thyroid test and it comes back okay - what else is there. After all these thyroid test cost a whooping 300 dollars?????

ct teacher

I agree that most psychiatric and neurological problems are physiological in nature. However, I want to add that problems with depression, OCD and fatigue, bowel problems, headaches, joint pain, and neurological symptoms that I experienced as a teenager and young adult, were greatly ameliorated by thyroid treatment. Many doctors missed the diagnosis for years, instead treating me for each individual symptom. After years of suffering ,when I finally developed a large goiter, the diagnosis was made. I can't express the way that proper treatment changed not only my physical symptoms but my whole personality. I finally felt that I was whole again. I hope doctors are looking into the endocrine system with kids who are suffering vaccine damage.


Isn't it interesting how main stream medicine leans so much more heavily toward p$sychoanaly$i$ ... than they do toward ¢helation ??

Cherry Sperlin Misra

A crucial factor in all this is that very very few people today are ready to see human thinking and behavior(no matter how bizarre) as anything other than "psychological". Disturbed physiological functioning in the brain due to harmful toxins causing aberrant thinking and behavior is just something they cant get their minds around . We probably dont even have adequate vocabulary in the English language to express this rather simple concept that is so alien to most people.

Media Scholar

Freud’s misdiagnosis of mercury poisoning as “hysteria” has echoed down through the history of autism.
They also misdiagnosed mercury poisoning as shell shock. Claimed to cure all of it and hid cases in "nerve" hospitals. Mott never seemed to be able to implicate mercury...go figure?

kathy blanco

less we forget, toxoplasmosis, even H pylori, syphilis, and lyme bacteria can cause a whole lot of shee shee in the head...and can cause mental illness to whazoo. Infections have been underlooked as well.. Ask any lyme literate physician who has a very depressed suicidal patient if their lyme being treated made them feel better, just sayin...lots of lyme rages around fact on the news tonight, some dude walked into a large department store here with an ax aiming to shoplift, and upon discovery, promptly took out his "ax" and cut off a store security employees ear...or how about the other news of a guy walking down vine street in LA, and shooting at cars randomly, seriously...Ask Dr Robert Bransfield what he has seen in psych wards, and the numerous infections those people have, or Dr Walsh of Pfieffer who saw inmates with disordered chemistries or nutritional deficiency or lead poisoning?

Dan E. Burns

Michael B Schachter MD, thanks and welcome!

Teresa Conrick

The psychiatrists are holding tightly on their bread and butter because this generation is the one that is saying -stop-!

Too many victims!

Thank you, Dan for reminding us all how we got here with autism, autoimmune issues, seizures, mito dysfunction, etc etc and that we can get out.

Michael B Schachter MD, CNS

Brilliant article summarizing a totally different approach to understanding psychiatric disorders and the history of psychiatry. My entire psychiatric residency was dominated by Freudian psychosexual theories and how these related to understanding psychiatric disorders, such as hysteria, conversion reactions and anxiety. During my entire 3 years of residency at a major psychiatric institution, the notion of mercury or toxicity was not mentioned even once, except with regard to alcohol as a toxin in alcoholic patients who experienced delerium tremens (DTs) while undergoing severe withdrawal reactions from stopping alcohol. But, toxicity was not considered with the so-called "neurotic" disorders. Congratulations to Dan Olmstead for this excellent and succinct essay on this subject. In my current practice, all patients (both "psychiatric" and physical) are evaluated for mercury toxicity and other toxic exposures, including the mercury in mercury-amalgam dental fillings. All psychiatrists and physicians in general should read this article. Hopefully, it will affect at least some who have the slightest openmindedness to new ideas.
Michael B Schachter MD, CNS
Board Certified Psychiatrist

Birgit Calhoun

Edward Louis Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud's, wrote a book "Propaganda". He took Freud's complex ideas on people's unconscious, psychological motivations and applied them to the new field of public relations. That might be food for thought in this discussion. Great article!


The doc`s aren’t doc`s these days just pharma illness pushers FOR ALL...the younger the better from birth...or as we all know to well,get them ill even before birth.

Great article Dan



Debbie Voss

@ Barry, that is the very same thing I thought, when I read this piece. Diabolical!

Dan, you are amazing. Thank you.


Remember Howard Hughes' experiments with aircraft? Everyone knows about his bouts with mental illness, but few consider all the toxic chemicals he was exposed to -- fuels, metals -- and few factor in humans' varying susceptibility levels.

How many hundreds of millions of people are walking around with mercury amalgam tooth fillings, getting annual flu shots with mercury, and we wonder why our aging population develops mental illnesses, immune dysfunction, inflammatory diseases? Mercury doesn't clear the body as neatly and completely as the old, oft-repeated research claims. As lifelong body burden increases, are we creating the "hidden hordes" of old autistics who've "always been there"?


Another great essay!

Look forward to your writing a piece on successful mercury *removal* as we've experienced here...

Thanks to Andrew Hall Cutler's chelation protocol, we have a once "autistic" boy who is primed for a full life.

Dan E. Burns

Another chilly day for Willie.


"... In the case of Dora, Freud treated her father for syphilis before seeing her as a patient a few years later – having triggered, we believe, the very mental problems that he then treated as psychiatric! Nice work if you can get it...."


What you've captured here, is the basic premise of how modern medicine works.

It all starts with vaccines, designed to trigger chronic illness by disabling your immune system. Once the autoimmune illnesses start to manifest themselves, the pharmaceutical treatments can begin. Each treatment is designed to be used for a lifetime, and each carries side effects that conveniently drive the need for yet more pharmaceutical treatments.

Like you say... nice work if you can get it.

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