Published On August 11, 2022
Frederic Whipple had only been married a short time when, in 1862, he was recruited into the Union Army’s Tenth Vermont Infantry Regiment. Like many Civil War soldiers, he was fated never to return.
One day, Whipple presented himself to an army surgeon, who could find nothing wrong with him other than an extreme desire to return home. For today’s physicians, homesickness is not a special cause for concern, but Whipple’s case quickly became dire.
“His orderly-sergeant could do nothing with him in his company,” wrote Chaplain Edwin Haynes. “He was finally put into the Hospital, where, refusing to be nursed, after a few days he died, moaning piteously all the time, ‘I want to go home—I want to go home.’”
Whipple was one of more than 70 recorded deaths from “nostalgia” recorded by the Union Army during the Civil War. Around 5,000 more soldiers were diagnosed with nonfatal cases of the disease. At the time, nostalgia was considered a serious medical condition, a diagnosis with a long pedigree in the medical and academic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The term “nostalgia” was first used medically in 1688 by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer. “He kickstarted the early modern trend in thinking about homesickness as a kind of pathological entity,” says Agnes Arnold-Forster, a historian of medicine and the emotions at the Center for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Hofer described symptoms that involved both mind and body: anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, cardiac palpitations and fever. He hypothesized that the bodily symptoms of the disease occurred because the “animal spirits,” energy that allowed sensation and movement, were “busied excessively in the brain, [and] cannot flow with sufficient supply and proper vigor through the invisible tubes of the nerves to all [body] parts.”
While the most effective treatment was a return home, other treatments appeared through the years. Some doctors, says Arnold-Forster, thought that nostalgia was related to a change in altitude, which was why the Swiss were especially vulnerable when they left their mountainous land. “One doctor thought it was a good idea to put them up in a tall tower to replicate their home environment,” she says.
By the time of the Civil War, says Susan Matt, a history professor at Weber State University in Utah, soldiers and others who suffered from nostalgia were treated sympathetically. “Loving home in the nineteenth century was part of being a good man,” she says. “Nostalgia was almost a virtuous illness to have, because it showed that you cared about the right things.”
The last recorded military death from nostalgia was a soldier in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, although nonfatal cases were reported during World War II as well. After that, the diagnosis faded.
Nostalgia fell from favor in part because social norms had changed. By the middle of the twentieth century, there was less sympathy for those who missed home. “There was a greater imperative to move, there was a greater imperative to start a nuclear family of one’s own at a young age,” says Matt. “Psychologists and sociologists argued that homesickness was something people should conquer in summer camp, certainly by the time they went to college. Americans were expected to cut ties and move on very easily.”
Western medicine also underwent profound shifts in how it thought about disease. “In the early modern period, the boundary line between the mind and the body was much more fluid,” says Arnold-Forster. “It was thought that all illnesses would have an impact on your mood, your optimism, your body, your thoughts, your feelings.” Around the end of the nineteenth century, doctors established a more emphatic distinction between the mind and body, as well as the medical disciplines that handled each.
So how would these deaths be viewed today? Classic nostalgia does seem to share elements with depression and suicidality, says Arnold-Forster. Many cases involved disordered eating, as nostalgia sufferers would refuse food. But she cautions against simple interpretations of a disease from another age: “People’s experience of illness—and this is as true today as it was in the past—is shaped by their cultural and historical context.”
Today, the closest research field in medicine looks at the mental health of refugees. In May 2022, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported that the number of forcibly displaced persons had, for the first time, surpassed 100 million because of conflicts across the globe, including those in Ethiopia, Afghanistan and, most recently, Ukraine.
A recent meta-analysis showed that rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression were higher than 30% among these refugees and asylum-seekers. While war accounts for some of this trauma, separation from the culture, language and friendships of home can cause distress in themselves, with homesickness associated with greater symptoms of depression and anxiety. Experts call for addressing not only the physical but mental wounds—including homesickness—of those forced to be far from home.
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