When my sister sent me the above photo I immediately asked her where she had taken it. Oddly enough, her answer was ‘In a museum’. I immediately Googled “Viscountess Anne Conway + headache” and soon discovered that Anne did indeed suffer from a mysterious headache for virtually all her life. She died in 1679.
I wonder what people thought of her headaches back then. Did they think she was a hypochondriac? A liar? A witch? An emotionally unstable, neurotic woman in need of some fresh sea air?
Anne was actually a highly respected 17th century philosopher, metaphysicist and intellectual whose ideas and criticisms on Descartes and Hobbes influenced later writers.
Her debilitating chronic headaches are mentioned in a number of sources. From what I have researched, I am unable to say whether Anne suffered from one persistent headache or a series of continuous attacks. It seems to me it was probably one continuous headache, but given that most people do not even believe such a thing possible, over time I think some physicists and historians may have eventually settled for ‘headaches’ in the plural.
Her severe headache perplexed friends and doctors alike, leading her to try all sorts of (dangerous) cures including mercury and opium, albeit to no avail. In a desperate attempt to cure the headache, Anne even travelled to France to be trepanned. No one dared proceed with the operation and eventually her jugular arteries were opened instead – an equally risky procedure. A renowned alchemist and healer was even invited to Anne’s country home to try and rid her of the debilitating pain, but her headache persisted. It continued to baffle eminent physicians and doctors for the rest of her life.
It appears her headache started at the age of 12. It was initially attributed to her excessive studying habits, although a number of sources claim it started following a severe illness accompanied by fever, which left a lingering headache that continued for the rest of her life.
The headache had a clear influence on her life and ideas:
“The way her own suffering from increasingly debilitating headaches contributed to the development of her philosophical assessment of pain as an integral part of the process of purification adds an autobiographical element to her writing that is all too often ignored in the analysis of philosophical systems.”***
Anne was not considered mad, mentally unstable or neurotic given her constant headache and pleas for help. If only our doctors, like those four centuries ago, believed us when we say we suffer from a continuous headache that never goes away.