Medicine and Modernity in the Long Nineteenth Century

On 10 and 11 September 2016, the Diseases of Modern Life team held its main conference, 'Medicine and Modernity in the Long Nineteenth Century' at St Anne's College. Throughout the weekend, they explored phenomena of stress and overload, overpressure, and other disorders associated with the problems of modernity in the nineteenth century, as they were expressed and explored in the literature, science, and medicine of the period. Discussion, both online and offline, was extremely rich and there were over three hundred conference tweets throughout the two days. A storify summary of the event is available here.

The two keynote lectures by Professor Christopher Hamlin and Professor Laura Otis are now available in the news and blog section of their website. Professor Hamlin opened the conference with a lecture entitled ‘What is your Complaint? Health as Moral Economy in the Long Nineteenth Century’, in which he spoke persuasively about the different states, perspectives, and currencies of health which operate outside of, or at times even in conflict with, those medical histories and diseases that are largely defined by doctors. Professor Otis ended the weekend with her keynote, ‘What’s at Stake in Judging the Health and Pathology of Emotions?’ In her presentation, Professor Otis asked under what circumstances emotions – or lack of emotions – might be considered pathological, and she offered a reading of Dickens’s Miss Havisham as a woman paralysed by anger, who demonstrates the widespread damage that one angry person can do. 

In many of the sessions, parallels were drawn to present day stresses and strains, questions were raised about how much has in fact changed and what we might learn from our studies of the past. Many of the speakers responded to this challenge by tracing productive discussions across the fields of literature, science, and medicine, or by providing rich comparative perspectives from international viewpoints, drawing on sources from Finland to France, Germany, America, Japan, India, South Africa, and the South Pacific to reveal connections between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease. What emerged through this work was a far more integrative and holistic approach to notions of disease, one that disrupted the frequent compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental, emotional, and literary histories in present practice in order to offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity. 

Over the coming weeks, a selection of speakers’ papers will be featured in the form of blog posts on the website, in order to continue the rich discussions started at the conference. They would like to thank the speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion on Twitter for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day. 

Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives is funded by the European Research Council within the 7th Framework Programme under Grant Number 340121. The project is led by Sally Shuttleworth, Professorial Fellow in English, and is based at St Anne's College. 

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