"James Jackson Putnam and Susan Elizabeth Blow: A Case Study in the Development of a Therapeutic Personal Spiritual Philosophy"

Document Type


Presentation Date

Spring 4-25-2009

Conference Name

American Association for the History of Medicine annual conference

Conference Location



In the 1890s kindergarten pioneer and educationist Susan Elizabeth Blow suffered an emotional and physical breakdown that left her agonizingly despondent. Normally an extremely active woman with a powerful curiosity, Blow simply languished as a victim of neurasthenia, that turn-of-the-century condition akin to today’s chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, clinical depression, bi-polar disorder, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Friends put her in contact with esteemed Harvard neurologist James Jackson Putnam who helped counsel her back to health. “For any and all work I am able to do,” Blow wrote to Putnam in 1894, “I am in large measure indebted to your skill, fidelity, and kindness.” In her gracious acknowledgement of Putnam’s help, Blow was being rather modest, as it was she who took the leading role in regulating her own health through the development of a personal spiritual philosophy.

Using a series of letters (archived at Harvard’s Countway Library, Rare Books and Special Collections) between Blow and Putnam, this paper follows discussions about philosophy and religion to outline the development of Blow’s religious philosophy that helped fortify her during times of neurasthenic despair. “I am feeling the support of trust in God,” she told Putnam, “but it is my intellectual conception and conviction which supports the trust.” As sometimes happens in doctor-patient relationships, Blow caused Putnam to reconsider some of his own ideas, prompting him to enlist the aid of his Pragmatist colleague William James to help him understand the links between spirituality, philosophy, and health. “I wish you could bring home a clear philosophy and a justified religion,” Putnam wrote to a vacationing James, “[Blow’s religious ideas] give the most comforting assurances of anything I know; but is there a flaw in them? If so, I cannot see it.”


psychiatry, history, medicine, neurasthenia, spirituality, James Jackson Putnam, Susan Elizabeth Blow


Cultural History | History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Mental and Social Health | Religion | Women's History

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