(Fashionable) diseases of modern life


On 8 May three quarters of the Diseases of Modern Life team – Melissa Dickson, Sally Shuttleworth, and Jennifer Wallis – visited Newcastle University to meet with the Fashionable Diseases team and take part in a workshop. A joint project at the universities of Newcastle and Northumbria, Fashionable Diseases explores how, in the eighteenth century, ‘certain diseases could be construed as endowing a sick person with some social or cultural cachet’. Though focusing on different centuries, many of the themes investigated by the ‘Fashionable team’ (a much more flattering moniker than our own, ‘the Disease ladies’…) intersect with those of the DoML project – such as travel for health, nervousness, and addictive behaviours.

Sally Shuttleworth opened the workshop with a discussion of ‘Fears and Phobias in Victorian Culture’, tracking changing patterns in the diagnosis of nervous disorders in the nineteenth century. Looking at ‘excessive’ states of fear including pteronophobia (a fear of feathers) and ‘cat fear’ (rather self explanatory), Professor Shuttleworth explored the intersection of cultural, literary, and medical discourses of fear at this time, asking if phobias might be considered ‘fashionable diseases’. Next, Melissa Dickson looked at the female headache as a social and cultural – as well as medical – phenomenon, and how this vague, unprovable condition might have been a ‘disease of convenience’ for women eager to escape social engagements. Finally, Jennifer Wallis explored the peculiar risks of the London Season, particularly over-indulgence in alcohol at a time of popular concern with the apparent increase in respectable ‘lady tipplers’, with tippling or ‘nipping’ itself a symptom of fast living in the metropolis and the subsequent need to stimulate a flagging system. The following discussion raised a number of interesting points, including one that both projects were grappling with – the difficulty of defining and using the term ‘modernity’ in our analyses. We’re looking forward to exploring this more closely in the future, but in the meantime you can hear all three talks from the workshop here.

You can keep up to date with the work of the Fashionable Diseases team via their website and blog, and on Twitter.

Working with 19th-century medical and health periodicals

On 30 May Diseases of Modern Life will be co-hosting a workshop with fellow project Constructing Scientific Communities, on ‘Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals’. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of medical periodicals available to the interested reader. Publications such as the Lancet and British Medical Journal are familiar names to many of us, still published and widely read today. The period also saw a huge range of smaller journals appearing, as practitioners increasingly organised themselves into more discrete medical ‘specialisms’ towards the end of the century. The Asylum Journal, later Journal of Mental Science, for example, sought to bring together the knowledge of those working in the expanding field of psychiatry, whilst The Homoeopathic World provided a forum for discussion for those practicing homoeopathic medicine, and was read both by medical professionals and laypeople.

As digitization projects advance, an increasing number of these medical periodicals are becoming available to researchers. We are interested in learning more about the nature and methodologies of current research projects that involve working with these journals, as well as broader issues surrounding this kind of research. Our speakers will be asking questions about how to read periodicals, how to situate these materials within a broader historical medical context, and how to construct narratives based on periodical research.

Periodicals workshop, May 2015, programme

The workshop is now fully booked, but we will be tweeting throughout the day using the hashtag #medpers, so please do follow us at @diseasesmodlife or @conscicom and join in the conversation!