Virginia Woolf’s psychiatrist, George Savage, subscribed to a common medical theory in the 1920s known as “focal infection theory” which was the belief that mental illness and other health problems were caused by infections in the teeth.
Savage suspected Virginia’s mental instability was the result of a nest of bacteria in the roots of her teeth and, in an attempt to cure her, pulled three of her teeth in June of 1922. Savage also hoped extracting the teeth would bring down a fever she had been running that summer, one that other doctors she previously consulted with had misdiagnosed as life-threatening cases of heart and lung disease.
Virginia was not happy about the medical treatment she received, which resulted in her having to wear false teeth, and wrote about it in her diary:
“Sunday 11 June:
The depression of a return from Rodmell is always acute. Perhaps this continued temperature – I have lost three teeth in vain – may be some sort of cause for my ups & downs. Yet the days at Rodmell passed smoothly.”
She later blasted the doctors in a letter to a friend, in which she wrote:
“I’m so cross.Three teeth pulled out that might have lasted a lifetime, and temperature still up. Next they’ll cut out my tonsils, and then I suppose adenoids, and then appendix, and then — what comes next?”
According to one of Virginia’s biographers, Harold Bloom, these fumbling doctors later became the inspiration for Septimus Smith’s clueless doctor in her novel “Mrs. Dalloway”
Perhaps it was these bad experiences and her disillusionment with modern medicine that spurred Virginia to refuse medical treatment for her final mental breakdown that resulted in her suicide in 1941.
The day before her suicide, Virginia’s husband Leonard brought her to a local doctor in an attempt to prevent another breakdown but Virginia was uncooperative, defensive and practically refused treatment. Virginia eventually allowed the doctor to examine her and agreed to accept treatment if she thought it was reasonable but then returned home and drowned herself the very next morning without even giving the treatment a try.
“The Letters of Virginia Woolf” Volume II; Virginia Woolf
“Virginia Woolf”; Harold Bloom; 2005
“Virginia Woolf”; Hermoine Lee; 1999
“The Diary of Virginia Woolf”; Volume Two; Virginia Woolf