Northern Centre for the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities

Ground-breaking new research project at the Centre and Northumbria University

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Many Congratulation from the Centre to Dr. Jonathan Andrews and colleagues from English Literature at Northumbria University for having secured over £250,000 worth of funding from the Leverhulme Trust, for a three-year research project on fashionable diseases in medicine, literature and culture during 1660 – 1832. 

The Principal Investigator for the project at Northumbria is Dr. Clark Lawlor. Dr Andrews will be directing the project at Newcastle. Both will also be collaborating with and assisted by two other colleagues at Northumbria, Prof Allan Ingram, who has written extensively on 18th-century insanity and disease, and Dr Leigh Wetherall Dickson who has written on the representation of disease. The project will commence on 1 January 2013, and £128,196 comes to Newcastle as a result of this grant. Dr. James Kenneway has been appointed as a Research Associate on the Newcastle side. Welcome back, James!  

 

Fashionable Diseases: Medicine, Literature and Culture, ca. 1660-1832


This project entails a collaborative, inter-disciplinary approach to fashionable diseases, applying both literary and historical methodologies to discourse about diseases. Two post-doctoral researchers, one working at each institution, will conduct the primary research, with supervision from Dr Andrews at Newcastle and Dr Lawlor at Northumbria. The Newcastle-based researcher will analyse the patient experience and social context of fashionable disease; the researcher based at Northumbria will work on literary narratives of fashionable disease.


We will examine how and why diseases have become fashionable in the past and compare and contrast these findings with notions of diseases in modern times. From consumption and gout in the 18th century to ‘thinspiration’ websites praising anorexia more recently, diseases and come and go – sometimes with alarming rapidity. We address a cultural and medical phenomenon that is still little understood, particularly in its historical dimensions. No major project has yet fully explained how fashionable diseases come to be formed, maintained and removed from history. Disease needs to be looked at in its socio-cultural context. Throughout history some diseases have been ‘romanticised.’ Consumption, for example, was known as a ‘poetic’ or ‘beautiful disease’: men and women became thin with alternately red and pale cheeks and allegedly had a greater degree of sensibility and intelligence than others.

While certain diseases were evidently endowed with social and cultural cachet, this was often double-edged. Modish diseases and their doctors also attracted critique, derision and satire, for the alleged artificiality, pretence, affectation and less reputable social and economic conduct and motivations implicating the construction and presentation of fashionable diseases. This project examines the paradox of why some people considered particular diseases at particular times as fashionable and markers of socio-cultural distinction, while others saw the very same diseases as disreputable and sham. Positive associations with disease might grant certain sufferers an aura of social kudos, enablement, or be linked in with effective therapeutics, recovery and travel rto particular health resorts; but at the same time fashionable diseases like ‘vapours’ might be stigmatising, disabling and compromising of identity and social ambitions. We seek to better explain the processes whereby some diseases become and remain fashionable and subsequently lose their credibility and ‘appeal’, and go out of fashion. Fashionable diseases can only be understood by comparing them with diseases which were distinctly unfashionable (e.g. venereal diseases, or common mundane ailments like colds). The project will scrutinise fashionable diseases from various perspectives, relating them in particular to the medical marketplace and health tourism, and to identity, gender, class, age, race and religion.


Most research on fashionable diseases to date has addressed specific diseases rather than compared diseases over time, especially gout, consumption and nervous diseases, and has been preoccupied with elite sufferers, doctor and discourse. This project will be concerned to assess a wider range of diseases, some of which including bilious disorders, headache and  rheumatism, and the extent to which the fashionability of diseases trickled down the social scale to the growing middling sort of Georgian Britain, examining the memoirs, diaries, correspondence and other literature of both elite and non-elite sufferers and doctors. It will accord balanced attention to the attitudes of physicians, philosophers, clerics, artists and social commentators from a whole range of differing familial and occupational backgrounds. In doing so, we will provide a new, more comprehensive understanding of how diseases come to be regarded as fashionable and, conversely, unfashionable. As today, some diseases seemed to be fashionable with one sex and not the other: why was this? Migraine, for example, was a sign of high sensibility in men but mental instability in women. Similarly, some diseases were associated with certain social and professional/occupational ranks and not others: rheumatism for example was strongly associated with certain lower manual occupations (glossed by Coleridge as the coachman’s disease), and yet was also harped on as the affliction justifying ‘ignorant’ fashionable ladies seeking health in exotic climes.

 

 

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