The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life

Professor Sally Shuttleworth’s blog for the British Academy on The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life is now available to read here. The blog is part of a series by British Academy Fellows who hold European Research Council Awards.

Professor Shuttleworth was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. Elections are made annually in the humanities and social sciences for distinguished academics in recognition of outstanding research.


Why are some people afraid of cats?

The language of phobia is so common today that we scarcely give it a second thought. Yet it was not until the end of the 19th century that medicine turned its attention to forms of irrational fear, following the initial medical diagnosis of agoraphobia – fear of open, public spaces – by the German physician Carl Westphal in 1871.

Westphal had been puzzled why three of his patients, all professional men leading otherwise full lives, became struck with fear when having to cross an open city space. All were aware of the irrationality of their fears, but were powerless to overcome them.

The idea that individuals who were otherwise sane and rational could nonetheless be afflicted with forms of inexplicable fear was quickly taken up, both in the medical and popular culture of the era. When the American psychologist G Stanley Hall published his Synthetic Genetic Study of Fear in the American Journal of Psychology in 1914 he identified no less than 136 different forms of pathological fear, all with their own Greek or Latinate names.

These stretched from the more general categories of agoraphobia and claustrophobia or haptophobia (fear of touch), to very specific forms such as amakaphobia (fear of carriages), pteronophobia (fear of feathers), and what appears a very Victorian, moral category, hypegiaphobia (fear of responsibility). There was also, of course, ailurophobia: the fear of cats.

This urge to classify created a vivid cultural and psychological map of the fears and anxieties of a society that had experienced the rapid social changes of industrialisation and the decline of religion in the post-Darwinian era. Society was turning inwards, and to the sciences of the mind, for answers.

Tony Alter/Flickr, CC BY

136 phobias

Hall’s research on phobias stretches back to the 1890s, when he sent out hundreds of questionnaires for people to fill in about the forms of their fears. Many of the answers were from school children. The answers make fascinating reading, although Hall, infuriatingly, only gives us snippets.

There is, for example, the English lady who claimed she had been “robbed of the joy of childhood by religious fears” and had decided instead to turn to the devil “who she found kinder”. A boy of ten was more resourceful and decided to meet his fears head on. Hall wrote of him: “Decided to go to hell when he died; rubbed brimstone on him to get used to it, etc.” A world of possibilities is opened up in that “etc”. What else did the boy do to ensure he ended up in hell?

To our eyes, it is clear that there were obvious social and religious causes for these particular forms of fear. But Hall argued, in Darwinian vein, that fears and phobias are largely the product of our evolutionary past, and come to us as inherited forms from our remote ancestry.

Feline fears

One particular phobia that attracted considerable medical and popular attention was ailurophobia – that fear of cats. Medics themselves tapped into the public interest, writing in the pages of popular magazines. The American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell, for example, reworked a paper first published in the Transactions of the Association of American Physicians in 1905 for the Ladies Home Journal of 1906, giving it the far snappier title, “Cat Fear”.

Like Hall, Mitchell also sent out questionnaires, exploring forms and potential causes of fear of cats. He was also interested in the seeming ability of some sufferers to be able to detect, without seeing it, when a cat is in a room. Mitchell collected testimony from “trustworthy observers” of various practical experiments undertaken – cats tempted with cream into cupboards, and then unsuspecting sufferers lured into the room to see if they detected the alien presence. Initially he was sceptical: the hysterical girl who claimed she always knew when a cat was in the room was right only a third of the time. But he concluded that many of his cases could indeed detect hidden cats, even when they could neither see nor smell them.

Chill Winston.
Jerry/Flickr, CC BY-SA

In trying to account for the phenomenon he ruled out asthma, and evolutionary inherited fears (those terrified of cats are often perfectly comfortable on seeing lions). As to the detection, he suggested that perhaps emanations from the cat “may affect the nervous system through the nasal membrane, although unrecognised as odors”. Mitchell nonetheless remained baffled by “unreasonable terror of cats”. He concluded with the observation that victims of cat fear record “how even strange cats seem to have an unusual desire to be near them, to jump on their laps or to follow them”.

The dawn of the internet appears to have intensified our cultural fascination with cats. Where Mitchell and Hall sent out questionnaires to obtain data on fears, millions now write, in a reversal of roles, to self-declared experts to share their experiences, and have their questions answered. According to one such site, Cat World, one of the most frequently asked questions is “Why do cats go to people who do not like them?”.

Taking a leaf out of Stanley Hall’s book, the answers invariably invoke evolution: the frightened person is not a threat. But like Mitchell, they still seem unable to answer the key question: why do only some people develop such terror in the first place? And that is, of course, another area for today’s researchers.

The Conversation

Sally Shuttleworth, Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

One Day Workshop 10th March 2017. Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word


Venue: Studio Theatre, dlr LexIcon, Dublin

10 March 2017

Conference Organisers:

Dr. Elizabeth Barrett (UCD) and Dr. Melissa Dickson (Oxford).

Keynote Speakers:

Prof. James V. Lucey (TCD),

Prof. Fergus Shanahan (UCC) and

Prof. Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford).

This one-day programme of talks and workshops seeks to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes.

Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, interdisciplinary professionals, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about literature as a point of therapeutic engagement. We will explore methods that can be used to increase the well-being and communication skills of healthcare providers, patients and family members.

Conference Coordinator:

Victoria Sewell (UCD)

Book here with UCD

Event Schedule


9.30 Arrival and Registration


10.00am–10.45 Introduction and Keynote Address: 

‘Listening to patients, telling their stories’. Professor James V. Lucey, Trinity College Dublin.

10.45–11.00 Coffee break 

11.00am –12.30 Workshops

Workshop A: Children’s Books Ireland and the Book Doctor Project.

Workshop B: Poetry of Disquiet: Professor Femi Oyebode, University of Birmingham.

Workshop C: Lived Experiences- Memoirs, meaning and mental illness.: With the RE:FOCUS group led by Dr Anne Jeffers, College of Psychiatry of Ireland.

12.30–13.30 Lunch at Brambles Café 

13.30–14.15 Keynote Address: ‘Mining Medicine from Literature’.

Professor Fergus Shanahan, University College Cork.

14.50 –15.40 Workshops

Workshop D: Bibliotherapy: The Power of Words Project and the HEAL Project: Health Education and Literacy for our Community,

Workshop E: Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on stress and overwork: Dr. Melissa Dickson and Researchers from the ERC-funded Diseases of Modern Life

Workshop F: The Shared Experiences of Clinicians: Led by Dr. Elizabeth Barrett, Associate Professor, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Ms. Caroline Ward, UCD Student Counselling Service, Dr. Niamh Geaney, GP and writer, University of Limerick.

15.40pm Coffee break 

16.00 –16.45 Keynote Address: 

‘Literary Texts and Medical Case Studies’.  Professor Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford.

16.45 Feedback Q&A and Closing Remarks




Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century: Seminars for Hilary Term 2017


John Atkinson Grimshaw, At The Park Gate (1878)

Our programme for Hilary Term 2017 is now announced with two seminars at St Anne’s College.

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking is required.

Wednesday 1 February 2017 (Week 3)

Professor Barbara Taylor, Queen Mary University of London

Pathologies of Solitude

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Solitude today is a serious health concern. Loneliness is identified as a major contributor to illness, especially among the elderly and people with mental disorders. Conversely, fears are expressed about a decline in young people’s capacity for solitariness, in this digitally-connected age. Modern people, in other words, are either too solitary or not solitary enough: a paradoxical situation with potentially serious consequences for individual and social wellbeing.  Such concerns are not new. Solitude has always been problematic. From antiquity on it has been portrayed in dichotomous ways: as a higher state of being, free from worldly vice, and as an unnatural, debilitating condition. ‘Whosoever delights in solitude’, an Aristotelean epigram ran, ‘is either a beast or a god’. In the premodern world, only the god-like – saints, philosophers – were entitled to solitude. For the rest of humankind, occasional solitude – for prayer, contemplation, restoration – was part of a well-balanced life, but a reclusive existence was unhuman and productive of many evils: misanthropy, melancholy, superstition, madness.  Every age produces its versions of these anxieties. But a decisive turning point came in the late eighteenth-nineteenth century when the social and attitudinal changes associated with the rise of ‘commercial civilisation’ prompted an unprecedented level of concern about solitude and its associated pathologies: a concern which has continued unabated – although some of its emphases have changed – right up to the present.

In this paper Professor Taylor outlines this history, with particular emphasis on nineteenth-century developments.  She is putting together a research project on the Pathologies of Solitude, 18th-21st Centuries, and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the scope and aims of the project.

Wednesday 22 February 2017 (Week 6)

Dr Helena Ifill, University of Sheffield

Medical Authority, (pseudo)Science and the Explained Supernatural in Late Victorian Female Gothic Fiction

5.30 – 7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s short story ‘Good Lady Ducayne’ and Florence Marryat’s novel The Blood of the Vampire were published at much the same time as Bram Stoker’s best-selling Dracula. But these “vampire” stories do not feature the kind of blood-sucking fiend we may expect. Instead they offer alternative visions of vampirism which lead to a questioning of “expert” medical authority, doctor-patient power relations, and the efficacy of modern medical science.

Goblins and Indigestion: the Tale of the Christmas Microbe

On my latest adventure into the periodical archives, I came across a fitting subject for a New Year’s post—the story of the Christmas microbe! This short story, published in Fun in 1898 follows the capers of a festive microorganism on his mission to bring christmas joy to an unlikely city merchant. The merchant, like Dickens’ Scrooge, is initially resistant to the delights of the holiday, shunning his children and wallowing in the memory of his dead wife. However, soon the Christmas microbe is on the case, a microorganism that is – it boasts – ‘not the sort you can kill with a sniff of carbolic [acid]’.⁠1 By slipping into his glass of grog, the Christmas microbe infects his merchant with Christmas cheer, turning him into ‘a perfect hotbed of Christmas germs’ who comes home laden with toys for his children.

This story is particularly interesting for my research as it articulates a vision of microbial contagion that is not pathogenic, but rather has a positive impact on society. Post germ theory, this story offers us a more benign view of the microscopic world, and one which speaks to the connection between gastrointestinal health and the emotions, or to what is now called the gut-brain axis. Indeed, the microbe establishes itself as a ‘cousin’ of indigestion, gesturing toward both its functional similarities, and to the overindulgences of the festive season. The opening of the story frames the microbe using the lexis of food and drink: ‘its face simply sparkled with fun and merriment, of the wassail bowl, baron of beef, and the steaming plum pudding,’—an association that recalls the ‘undigested bit of beef’, ‘blot of mustard’ or ‘crumb of cheese’ that Scrooge implicates in the appearance of the ghostly apparition that begins his own Christmas tale.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-21-26-05The microbe itself is depicted as a demon or goblin-like creature, which seems to be a common illustration for indigestion—in 1888, for example, Adolphus E. Bridger published a treatise on digestion entitled ‘The Demon of Dyspepsia’, while in 1892 Mary Bates Dimond wrote a poem, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’, which argued that the ‘fay and goblin [that] once held carnival of magic and of mirth’ had been replaced by the ‘arrogant Bacillus’.⁠2  Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading published a morality in rhyme called ‘Molly’s Dream’, which too used a gobliny aesthetic to warn against indigestion. Playing on the homophonic goblin and gobblin’, the poem recounts the story of Molly, who suffers a nightmare after indulging in a late-night feast:

Molly, our Molly, had sat up rather late—
Molly, our Molly, cooking was her fate,
And she had been very hurried,
With pies and puddings flurried—
With this to stew, and that to steep,
Until at length she fell asleep,
And in her sleep she saw the dreadful goblin.⁠3

At length the goblin speaks to her, proclaiming itself ‘the imp of indigestion’:

“I’m the imp of indigestion!
Play—the horrible suggestion—
With folks’ insides, who love things rich:
You and I, Moll, can serve out sich.
I love you ‘cause you plague your race—
I love you for your fat, round face—
So you, sweetheart, shall be my own dear goblin.”

Molly awakens with a shriek; however, far from having made some Faustian deal or having been kidnapped by the Goblin king a la Bowie in Labyrinth, she is met with the realities of her lack of willpower.

In fact, in answer to our question,
The doctor said ’twas indigestion;
The gobbling often was the cause of goblin.

With this cheerful moral ringing in your ears, I’ll leave you to finish off the holiday chocolate. Happy New Year from the Diseases of Modern Life team. May your grog remain long infested with the joyous contagion of the Christmas microbe!

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life.

1 ‘A Christmas Microbe’ Fun 67(4 Jan 1898)1704 p.17.

2 Mary Bates Dimond, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’ The Independent, Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts 44(27 Oct 1892)229, p.1.

3 S. C. Hall, ‘Molly’s Dream’ Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading 33(July 1868) p.91.