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When he wasn’t busy giving speeches celebrating the opening of the Erie Canal, classifying fish, or founding colleges, polymath Samuel Mitchell, a senator from New York, spent time in the field in which he received University training: medicine.

Samuel Mitchell was graduated from Scotland’s prestigious University of Edinburgh. Among virtually innumerable pursuits, he saw patients, at least early in his career, but his lasting recognition as a man of medicine has more to do with research than practice, as attested by his contributions to the development of anesthesiology, or his founding of The Medical Repository, the first medical journal first published in the United States.

Samuel Latham MitchellMitchell was routinely consulted on a wide range of matters of science. The groundbreaking pamphlet, The Surprising Case of Rachel Baker, Who Prays and Preaches in her Sleep, finds the eminent Samuel Mitchell on a panel of five physicians called as informal expert witnesses to Baker’s somnambulist sermons.

Although the stenographer Mais’ role in writing the book outweighed that of Mitchell, who contributed the introduction, the publication of Baker’s performance positions Mitchell as a bit player in a groundbreaking, and trendsetting, piece of work. Mitchell’s primary role was to lend credence to the recording of the events, and only secondarily, if appropriate, reflect upon the substance of the events, or contribute medical diagnosis.

That being said, Mitchell, who never wasted an opportunity to expound- and usually at some length- wrote an introduction to the book that “evinced psychological views of original combination,” per the New York Journal of Medicine, and drew parallels between Baker’s symptoms and those of one suffering from epilepsy or hysteria. He concluded that Baker’s state of consciousness was between waking and sleep.

Mitchell studied neither somnambulism nor multiple personality disorder after observing Baker in 1814. As the century rolled on, however, somnambulism, more specifically in the context of the trance speakers and writers, would come to play a substantial role in popular culture, science and, perhaps most importantly, the women’s movement and other aspects of political reform. The psychology of multiple personality disorder continues to evolve.

The Surprising Case of Rachel Baker, Who Prays and Preaches in her Sleep is important as an early contribution to both fields.

See also A Chaos of Knowledge, Samuel Latham Mitchell

 

For further reading:

Mais, Charles and Samuel Mitchill. The Surprising Case Of Rachel Baker, Who Prays And Preaches In Her Sleep: With Specimens Of Her Extraordinary Performances Taken Down Accurately In Short Hand At The Time …: The Whole Authenticated By The Most Respectable Testimony Of Living Witnesses.

 

Rieber, Robert W. The Bifurcation of the Self: the History and Theory of Disassociation and its Disorders.

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