now means longing for an (often idealized) past.
The term was, however, coined in 1678 by Johannes Hoffer (1669-1752) from Latin roots, to refer to "the pain a sick person feels because he is not in his native land, or fears never to see it again". This neologism was so successful that people forgot its origin. Moreover, its original technical meaning, referring to a serious medical disorder, has been lost as the word nostalgia entered everyday language.
During the period, from the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, that doctors diagnosed and treated nostalgia, it also had other names in various languages--maladie du pays in French, Heimweh in German and el mal de corazón in Spanish.
Cases resulting in death were known and soldiers were sometimes successfully treated by being discharged and sent home. Receiving a diagnosis was, however, generally regarded as an insult.
In 1787 Robert Hamilton (1749-1830) described a case of a soldier suffering from nostalgia, who received sensitive and successful treatment:
- In the year 1781, while I lay in barracks at Tinmouth in the north of England, a recruit who had lately joined the regiment,...was returned in sick list, with a message from his captain, requesting I would take him into the hospital. He had only been a few months a soldier; was young, handsome, and well-made for the service; but a melancholy hung over his countenance, and wanness preyed on his cheeks. He complained of a universal weakness, but no fixed pain; a noise in his ears, and giddiness of his head....As there were little obvious symptoms of fever, I did not well know what to make of the case...Some weeks passed with little alteration...excepting that he was evidently become more meagre. He scarcely took any nourishment...became indolent...He was put on a course of strengthening medicines; wine was allowed him. All proved ineffectual... He had now been in the hospital three months, and was quite emaciated, and like one in the last stage of consumption... On making my morning visit, and inquiring, as usual, of his rest at the nurse, she happened to mention the strong notions he had got in his head, she said, of home, and of his friends. What he was able to speak was constantly on this topic. this I had never heard of before...He had talked in the same style, it seems, less or more, ever since he came into the hospital. I went immediately up to him, and introduced the subject; and form the alacrity with which he resumed it.. I found it a theme which much affected him. He asked me, with earnestness, if I would let him go home. I pointed out to him how unfit he was, form his weakness to undertake such a journey [he was a Welchman] till once he was better; but promised him, assuredly, without farther hesitation, that as soon as he was able he should have six weeks to go home. He revived at the very thought of it... His apeitite soon mended; and I saw in less than a week, evident signs of recovery... .
Cases of nostalgia, which sometimes occurred as epidemics, were less frequent when the armies was victorious and more frequent when they suffered reverses.
By the 1850s nostalgia was losing its status as a particular disease and coming to be seen rather as a symptom or stage of a pathological process. It was considered as a form of melancholia and a predisposing condition among suicides. Nostalgia was, however, still diagnosed among soldiers as late as the American Civil War.
By the 1870s interest in nostalgia as a medical category had all but vanished. Most saw the decline of this serious disease was a good thing, as the result of progress. Nonetheless some lamented what they saw as the loss of the feelings for home that gave rise to the illness . Of course the phenomenon of nostalgia did not disappear with its demedicalization.
External links and references
- Hunter, Richard and Macalpine, Ida. Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry:1535-1860, [Hartsdale, NY, Carlisle Publishing, Inc, 1982]