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, recommended she have three of her teeth pulled 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?”
It is surprising Virginia agreed to Dr. Savage’s treatment at all since her husband, Leonard Woolf, had lost faith in Savage’s medical advice when he first consulted him in 1912, according to Leonard’s own account published in the book The Unknown Virginia Woolf:
“I went to see him quite early on in 1912 and he discussed Virginia’s health with me as a doctor and as an old friend. He was very friendly to me, but impressed me much more as a man of the world than as a doctor. In the next few months, I became more and more uneasy about one thing. We both wanted to have children, but the more I saw the dangerous effect of any strain or stress upon her, the more I began to doubt whether she would be able to stand the strain and stress of childbearing. I went and consulted Sir George Savage; he brushed my doubts aside. But now my doubts about Sir George Savage were added to my doubts about Virginia’s health. There seemed to be more of a man of the world (‘Do her a world of good, my dear fellow, do her a world of good!’) in his opinion than of the mental specialist…”
According to one of Virginia’s biographers, Harold Bloom, these fumbling doctors later became the inspiration for Septimus Smith’s clueless doctor in Virginia’s 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
“The Unknown Virginia Woolf”; Roger Poole; 1978