Understanding Eating Disorders - The History of Anorexia Nervosa

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The Origin of Anorexia Nervosa

Eating disorder history, specifically the history of anorexia nervosa, dates back to between 1200 and 1500 AD. Stories of saints in Medieval Europe, like Catherine of Siena, starved themselves to show their devotion and miraculous ability to live on minimal sustenance. In Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, Blumberg describes Catherine of Siena as eating only a hand full of herbs per day and shoving “twigs done her throat” to regurgitate any food she was forced to eat. This type of fasting may also be known as ascetic or holy anorexia.

Other reports of eating disorder history date back to the sixteenth century in Genoa and seventeenth century in France, according to John Sours, author of the book Starving to Death in a Sea of Objects.

In 1689, the first medical description of anorexia nervosa is credited to Richard Morton, an English physician. Nearly two centuries later, Louis-Victor Marce, a French physician, depicted a case of anorexia nervosa in 1859. Marce described a young female engaging in food refusal with mental disturbances. In 1868, Sir William Gull, an English physician and Governor of Guy’s Hospital in London, encountered a patient with anorexia nervosa. This encounter led him to write his influential piece in Transactions of the Clinical Society of London coining the term “anorexia nervosa,” meaning nervous loss of appetite. He describes his observations of anorexia nervosa as “occurring mostly in young women, and characterized by extreme emaciation.”

20th Century

In the early 20th century, many societal shifts began to take place in Western societies. Families decreased in size and middle-class children lived with their parents until they were married. Parenting styles evolved that placed high value on time spent with children, possibly contributing to more child scrutiny and parental control. According to Susie Orbach, author of Hunger Strike, parenting style was not the only evolution. There was an evolution of consumerism and technological advances. She proposes this shift of consumerism and technology, as well as new parenting practices, laid the foundation for the modern-day eating disorder. She reports that these factors aided in a developing view of the human body as a commodity.

Up until the 1970s, the general public knew very little about anorexia nervosa. In 1974, stories began to surface in the media about girls who refused to eat. In 1978, Hilde Bruch released her seminal work entitled the Golden Cage. This book illustrates 70 clinical cases of anorexia nervosa. The 1980s and early 1990s symbolized a time for waif supermodels and the explosion of the fitness industry. In 1983, Karen Carpenter died from complications of anorexia nervosa. As a result of her history of anorexia nervosa, other celebrities such as Tracie Gold, Paula Abdul and Princess Diana shared their eating disorder histories with the public.

21st Century and Beyond

According to a review study published in 2003 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, an increase in incidence of anorexia nervosa was found for each decade since the 1930s in young women ages 15-19.

Anorexia nervosa boasts the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The serious nature of this illness is apparent as activist groups are forming, media messages are gradually changing, and empirically-supported treatments for anorexia nervosa are emerging.


Blumberg, Joan J. Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa. Vintage, 2000.

Gull, W.W. “Anorexia nervosa (apepsia hysterical, anorexia hysterical)” Transactions of the Clinical Society of London, Printed for the Society in Spottiswoode, 1874.

Hoek, H.W. & van Hoeken, D. “Review of the prevalence and incidence of eating disorders” International Journal of Eating Disorders. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.

Orbach, Susie. Hunger Strike. Avon Books, 1986.

Sours, John. Starving to Death In a Sea of Objects. Aronson, Jason Inc., 1980.

Sullivan, P. “Mortality in anorexia nervosa” American Journal of Psychiatry. American Psychiatric Association, 1995.