An article from Danish Council for Independent Research

Kayak dizziness occurred when the hunters started to hallucinate in their kayak and the sea and the sky merged into one. Danish doctors attributed this condition to coffee, tobacco and sugar. (Photo: Colourbox)

Weird diagnoses kept Greenlanders in check

Arctic hysteria and kayak dizziness were once used as diagnoses to bolster the image of Greenlanders as an ‘inferior’ indigenous people.

Danish Council for Independent Research

Published with support from the Danish Council for Independent Research. ScienceNordic collaborates with professional and trustworthy research institutions to create and publish content.

The Danish colonial masters’ way of interpreting two disease symptoms mainly served to get Greenlanders to stick to their traditional lifestyle and provide lots of sealskin that the colonial masters could trade at great profit.

“Doctors’ diagnoses were and are not always based on science. They’re coloured by society and by the historical period in which they arise. Diagnoses have historically been used to get the lower classes and indigenous people to behave in a way that best served the interests of the middle and upper classes;” says historian Søren Rud, of Copenhagen University’s Saxo Institute.

He has studied how anything other than concrete medical data – factors such as gender, race, culture and economy – has played a part in the special Greenlandic diagnoses known as Arctic hysteria and kayak dizziness during the period 1864-1940.

Diagnoses interpreted by the upper classes

Preliminary conclusions related to the two diagnoses have also given the researcher insight into other ‘culture-specific diagnoses’. These had their heyday throughout the world on both sides of the year 1900.

Arctic hysteria

Mainly Inuit women were hit by Arctic hysteria. They started screaming, and some went into a trance, threw off their clothes and ran out on the ice.

Not many first-hand accounts are available, but many polar explorers persuaded Inuit women in remote villages to join them on their expeditions far away from their families.

Some of these women may have been treated badly by the members of these expeditions, found it hard to cope with the separation from their families and subsequently broke down. This is one of the possible, more down-to-earth, explanations.

“Exotic, culture-specific diagnoses have often been used – and abused – in various ways to control certain groups of people and their way of life. They have also been used for what society regarded as a division of races and classes into ‘us’ and ‘them’,” he explains.

“’We’ are those who live in a modern society and can enjoy luxury goods and stimulants in moderation. ‘They’ are the primitive people, who neither know how to cope with the rapid development in society nor control their use of luxury goods if they gain access to them.”

He mentions as an example a persistent myth, which is still alive and kicking:

“It is still commonly believed that Greenlanders are not as good at holding their liquour as e.g. Western Europeans – they get drunk more easily and find it harder to turn down a drink.

Kayak dizziness

Sometimes when out at sea – especially in calm waters under clear blue skies – Greenlandic hunters started to feel very dizzy.

They started hallucinating, which made the kayak unstable, and many of them ended up drowning. Doctors went on to classify this phenomenon as a nervous disease.

“As far as I know, there is no research that supports such a theory. It may appear this way because Greenlanders are more engaged in public life and don’t necessarily stay at home when they’re under the influence of alcohol.”

Poisoning or modern lifestyle diseases?

When doctors first diagnosed ’kayak dizziness’, they believed the Greenlanders had been poisoned. They couldn’t tolerate coffee and sugar. This led to a theory saying that tobacco was the cause, along with an explanation including epilepsy, which was, however, soon rejected.

The diagnosis evolved, and at one point it was concluded that Greenlanders with their race and culture were just not cut out for a modern society, with its rapid changes and its luxuries. Eventually – with no small influence from Freud – the condition was thought to be more of a ‘nervous disease’.

With all these different theories, a paradox started to emerge:

”On the one hand it was postulated that this was primitive behaviour and that Greenlanders were only capable of living in the present moment. On the other hand it was said that their diseases were closely linked to a modern lifestyle and that perhaps they were some of the first people to suffer from modern lifestyle diseases that weakened their nerves.”

The explanations behind the diagnoses stated that the lower the cultural status of people – and entire nations – the more affected they are when encountering a modern society.

Culture-specific diagnoses and acceptable behaviour

According to Rud’s research and many other studies, diagnoses are associated with living conditions and what type of behaviour is considered appropriate in a society.

”In a society where food is scarce, nobody suffers from eating disorders. There’s a great difference in how disorders like schizophrenia manifest themselves in a modern urban welfare society compared to in Javanese people around 1904, when they were examined,” he says.

”What constitutes acceptable behaviour in a society definitely plays a part – and not least how various forms of behaviour are interpreted.”


This article is brought to you in association with The Danish Independent Research Council

Read the Danish version of this article at

Translated by: Dann Vinther

External links

Related content
Powered by Labrador CMS