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Vol. LXII, No. 25
December 10, 2010

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Oxford Professor Discusses History of Nostalgia
  Dr. George Rousseau  
  Dr. George Rousseau  

Nostalgia today, with the exception of its cripplingly sentimental effect on the lyrics of country music songs, is not regarded as a public health issue or medical diagnosis. Like a freeway rest area, it is a place one occasionally visits quite harmlessly, but virtually no one lingers.

But that wasn’t always the case.

Dr. George Rousseau, a cultural historian based at the University of Oxford, offered a profile of nostalgia’s medical meanings at a recent History of Medicine lecture at NLM’s Lister Hill Auditorium.

First coined by Alsatian physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, nostalgia was, literally, a “longing for the home” with attendant medical symptoms if the yearning was repetitively unsatisfied. Home wasn’t meant in a literal sense, but as an idealized place, Rousseau noted. A common diagnosis in soldiers, its symptoms included eating disorders, sleeplessness, low spirits, withdrawal and even suicide. The only successful cure, in Hofer’s time, was to send the soldier home.

To trace the shifting meanings of nostalgia over the decades, Rousseau offered a biographical sketch of famed physicist Dr. Ludwig Boltzmann, who hanged himself at age 62 on the shores of Lake Duino, a victim, Rousseau says it could be argued from the scant evidence, of nostalgia’s terminal phase. It was during Boltzmann’s lifetime that nostalgia metamorphosed from a disorder thought to have physical origins (blood lesions were once considered the culprit) to one chiefly of memory.

Best known today as the originator of Boltzmann’s constant, a key feature of his kinetic theory of gases, Boltzmann suffered the fate of many a prominent academician—he was constantly on the move as prestigious universities vied for his services.

“Boltzmann was an itinerant academic who suffered a corrosive sense of exile that tortured him,” Rousseau said. The depressive trauma that ended up costing him his life was based, in part, in memory of a home and a peace he could never recover, Rousseau theorizes.

At the beginning of Boltzmann’s life, nostalgia was still considered a bona fide disease of the body, likely due to “nostalgic lesions surrounding the heart,” as physician Leopold Auenbrugger wrote in 1824.

But within that century, by the 1880s, nostalgia came to be regarded in middle Europe as a psychological phenomenon, a consequence of “wounded memory.” Never again would something as naïve as a physical cause be thought to trigger nostalgia—the diagnosis was now in the hands of Sigmund Freud, Karl Jaspers and other adherents of the new and burgeoning field of psychology.

These theoreticians probed memory relentlessly. Was it reliable? What forms it? Do idealized, but bogus, conceptions of home eventually result in pathology? Is one’s memory of a happy childhood really a thin, compensatory gauze masking something more troubling?

In one of the more knotty conceptions of the role of memory and actual physical abuse as cause of nostalgia, Rousseau recounted Jaspers’ study of young nannies in Germany who had been convicted of abusing, or even killing, their young charges. In a dissertation titled “Nostalgia and Crime,” Jaspers theorized that, out of desperate feelings of homesickness, the girls committed what they believed to be mercy killings, assuring that the youngsters would never have to grow up to be nannies living far from safe, secure homes. Or were their wards victims of the distinctly unsafe upbringings of the nannies, who were simply visiting upon children the same abuse they had suffered in youth?

Like most moderns, the judge in Jaspers’ Germany wasn’t buying the mercy-killing defense and put the women in the slammer. But nostalgia got away free, to await its next uses by succeeding generations. NIHRecord Icon

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