UK DISABILITY HISTORY MONTH EVENT: WORK, TIME AND STRESS: HISTORICAL AND CONTEMPORARY PERSPECTIVES

Thursday, November 23, 2017 –

WATCH THE VIDEO FROM THE EVENT HERE.
1:00pm to 2:00pm
Radcliffe Humanities, Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6GG
Seminar Room

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (Faculty of English Language and Literature) will look at discussions of stress and overwork in both education and professional life in the Victorian era, based on her research.  Although we are clearly living in a radically altered world, there are nonetheless startling similarities in the ways the problems of overwork have been framed and debated, then and now.

Dr Marie Tidball (Faculty of Law, Centre for Criminology and TORCH Knowledge Exchange Fellow) will talk about the ‘dynamic’ nature of disability and the impact that stresses of modern life have on its trajectories, employment and what people sometimes refer to as ‘disability time’. That is, the changed experience of time due to pain, anxiety and stress caused by an impairment or the impact an impairment has on the length of time it takes to do ‘activities of daily living’ which in turn affects the availability of time as a resource which has value, such as getting dressed takes longer for prosthetic limb wearer, the increased extent of email, and related issues for people’s energy levels and productivity. This has an interesting impact on the number of hours disabled people may have available or may be able to work and thus a factor affecting the disability pay gap.

The two talks will raise lots of ideas for discussion, including the impact of modern technologies in each period on the nature of work.

Please email torch@humanities.ox.ac.uk if you have any accessibility needs.

Lunch from 12.30pm. Talk from 1pm.

This event is part of UK Disability History Month 22 Nov-22 Dec.

 

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Telegraphy’s Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs

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Jean-Michel Johnston joined the project in October 2017. He researches the impact of telegraphy in nineteenth-century Europe.

The better-known story of electrical telegraphy narrates the triumphant onward march of a revolutionary new means of communication during the nineteenth century. It begins with the experiments in electro-magnetism conducted by Samuel Morse, Charles Wheatstone and Werner Siemens, among others, whose inventions led governments and the private sector to build telegraph lines across Europe and North America during the 1850s. In 1866, the first fully operational submarine telegraph cable was laid across the Atlantic, and soon these ‘tentacles of progress’ were extending across the globe.[1] Governments, companies and the general public became avid users of an expanding worldwide network of communication, intensifying and accelerating a process of unrelenting globalisation which continues to this day.

My research aims to uncover the lesser-known twists and turns in this narrative, to explore both the hopes and the frustrations, the anxieties as well as the excitement which were associated with telegraphy in nineteenth-century Europe. ‘Distance exists no more!’ a German illustrated periodical declared in 1853, echoing the public perception in Europe that the speed of telegraphic communication would ‘annihilate’ space and time.[2] But others were soon more sceptical. In 1869, the American neurologist George Miller Beard held the technology partly responsible for the crisis of ‘neurasthenia’, of anxiety, fatigue, and depression which was gripping society. By the turn of the twentieth century, denunciations of the stresses caused by modern communication and transport technologies competed with calls for ever faster, ever more pervasive network connections.

How did this ‘tempo virus’, this insatiable need for speed, spread through European society during the nineteenth century?[3] Was it a new phenomenon, or did it draw on existing desires and concerns? To answer these questions, it is important to compare the expectations which Europeans placed in telegraphy with their experience in using the technology. Communication between Paris and St Petersburg might take place in a matter of minutes, but this could make the 20-minute trek down to the local telegraph office seem all the more onerous. The speed of business transactions between stock exchanges was greatly enhanced by the technology, and they were based upon increasingly reliable and up-to-date sources of information. All the more concern, then, when weather conditions, wars, or technical faults interrupted or delayed these exchanges. At the same time, as networks expanded the social and economic gap between the telegraphically-endowed and those who remained beyond its reach continued to grow.

Telegraphy also introduced a host of new sights, sounds, and practices which stimulated the European imagination. The wires connecting towns and villages began to carve out the urban and rural landscape. ‘In windy weather’, wrote one British contemporary, ‘the electric wires form an Eolian harp, which occasionally emits most unearthly music’.[4] In Austria, as Amelia Bonea has discovered, these sounds inspired the compositions of Johann Strauss II. The habit of formulating concise, cost-efficient dispatches, meanwhile, produced a new ‘telegraphic’ writing style. ‘It is a very curious fact’, our earlier British witness opined, ‘that a lawyer under the [Electric Telegraph] Company’s galvanic influence, is suddenly gifted with a description of clairvoyance which enables him to write on any subject in a laconic style, which in his chambers he would consider… to be utterly impracticable!’.[5]

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Telephone, telegraph, and power lines over the streets of New York City, 1888. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But the same transformations were also the source of new anxieties. Was the electricity conducted by telegraph wires a public danger? Would it permeate the ground beneath them, where crops were being cultivated? What to make of the many birds which, it was reported, were regularly discovered, lying decapitated under these telegraphic gallows?[6] Not to mention that the strange tones emanating from the ‘Eolian harp’ could also be considered an unwelcome intrusion into the peaceful soundscape of rural Europe. And as Otto von Bismarck demonstrated in his careful editing of the Ems Dispatch in 1870, the curtness of the new telegraphic writing style could have devastating consequences…

We hear echoes of this blend of enthusiasm and concern in present-day attitudes to communications technologies. New media repeatedly promise to bring us ‘closer together’, but then find themselves under attack for their role in polarising public opinion. The internet and smartphones are blamed for breaking down the barrier between work and leisure time, yet obtaining greater bandwidth and faster, uninterrupted connections remains a pressing concern for many users. The consequences of brevity in communication, meanwhile, remain the subject of debate, as recent changes to Twitter’s 140-character limit demonstrated. Investigating both the expectations and the realities of telegraphic communication will help uncover the historical background to this ambiguous experience of modern life.

[1] D. R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford, 1988).

[2] Die Gartenlaube (1853), p. 74.

[3] P. Borscheid, Das Tempo-Virus: Eine Kulturgeschichte der Beschleunigung (Frankfurt, 2004).

[4] F. B. Head, Stokers and Pokers, 3rd edn. (London, 1849), p. 126.

[5] ibid., p. 114.

[6] ibid., p. 126.

Not Having Sex in the Victorian Period

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Sarah Green joined the project in October 2017. Her work looks at sexual continence in the literature of the British Aesthetic and Decadent Movements.

If you don’t have sex, you will be better at something else.

My research is not, of course, concerned with the truth (or otherwise) of this premise (no, woman I sat next to on a train, I don’t know quite how one would ‘prove’ it, and no, man in the coffee queue, it isn’t how I wrote my doctoral thesis). I’m interested in its wide and continuing popularity as an idea; in the very different models of bodily function that have been used to justified it, in the range of political agendas that it has been made to serve, and in the surprisingly numerous groups that have adopted it in so many times and places, from athletes to yogis, psychoanalysts, and pornography addicts, to name just a few.

In the nineteenth century, this idea could be found in a wide variety of writing that dealt, however tangentially, with sexual health and well-being. My current work looks at its perhaps unexpected presence in Aesthetic and Decadent writing about the artistic or aesthetic life, and especially its association there with anxieties about how to be healthy and productive in an increasingly challenging modern environment, one full of distinctly un-artistic and potentially unhealthy dirt, noise, crowding, hurry, pressure and degeneration.

In the astonishingly varied and often contradictory world of Victorian sexual health, the question of whether not having sex was good or bad for you was especially fraught. There were plenty of voices ready to claim that celibacy was damaging to both physical and mental health, with grisly consequences like atrophy of the sexual organs and permanent impotence.

But proponents of the opposite view often drew on centuries of thinking about the body to claim that not having sex was not only harmless, but could actually be actively good for you. Their reasons were not always compatible or consistent: some stuck to the ancient Greek belief that semen (both male and female), if not evacuated, would be reabsorbed by the body and become nourishing, while others thought that the energy taken to make more semen took vital energy from other bodily functions. Still others pointed, as the Greeks had also, to the stress on nerves and the brain caused by orgasm.

Whatever the ostensible reason, the underlying logic was the same, that not having sex allowed one to reserve resources for some other purpose, whether simple physical health or more mental functions such as scholarly or artistic work. And formal medical writing was not the only place that this idea could be found. Towards the end of the century it could be found in quack pamphlets and adverts, advice books for young men, feminist writing, and literature of all kinds. It was an idea that popped up in the most surprising of places, like the training regimes of Oxford and Cambridge undergraduate rowers.

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In the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge rowers are said to have included sexual abstinence as part of their training regime.

When, for example, sexologist Havelock Ellis claims that ‘a high degree of energy, whether in athletics or in intellect or in sexual activity, is unfavourable to the display of energy in other directions’; when Baden-Powell says that a man’s retained semen ‘gives the vigour of manhood to his frame, and it builds up his nerves and courage’; and when Walter Pater writes that ‘a passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible world comes to one with a reinforced brilliance and relief’, they share a structure of thought even while their understandings of bodily function vary.

And it certainly hasn’t disappeared now, either; think of Dr Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, and his strange obsession with ‘precious bodily fluids’ and ‘loss of essence’. In today’s world, not having sex is as contentious as ever, as abstinence-only sex education, virginity pledges and purity rings rub shoulders with a growing recognition of asexuality as a sexual orientation. It is increasingly important that the history of not having sex is shown to be as variegated, rich, and complex as the history of having it.

Sound Talking – A One Day Event at the London Science Museum

An interdisciplinary workshop on ‘language describing sound / sound emulating language’

Friday, 3rd November 2017

Dana Research Centre, London Science Museum

Sound Talking is a one-day event at the London Science Museum that seeks to explore the complex relationships between language and sound, both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the perspectives and methodologies of current research in the ever-widening field of sound studies, and to locate productive interactions between disciplines.

Bringing together audio engineers, psychiatrists, linguists, musicologists, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about sound as a point of linguistic engagement. We will consider the terminology used to discuss sound, the invention of words that capture sonic experience, and the use and manipulation of sound to emulate linguistic descriptions. Talks will address singing voice research, the history of onomatopoeias, new music production tools, auditory neuroscience, sounds in literature, and the sounds of the insane asylum.

Speakers:

– Ian Rawes (London Sound Survey)

– Melissa Dickson (University of Oxford)

– Jonathan Andrews (Newcastle University)

– Maria Chait (UCL Ear Institute)

– David Howard (Royal Holloway University of London)

– Brecht De Man (Queen Mary University of London)

– Mandy Parnell (Black Saloon Studios)

– Trevor Cox (Salford University)

Tickets for the event can be booked here.

For more information, please visit the event website, or contact the workshop chairs:

Melissa Dickson <melissa.dickson@ell.ox.ac.uk>

Brecht De Man <b.deman@qmul.ac.uk>

Songs, Cakes, and Games: Thoughts on Performing, Baking, and Playing Our Research at Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival

On 29th September 2017, Oxford hosted the Curiosity Carnival – a city-wide public engagement event as part of European Researcher’s night. With talks, stalls, performances, plays, and activities in broad street and in venues such as the Ashmolean, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum, it proved hugely popular, and many travelled from far and wide to see what the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes’s academics had to offer. The Diseases of Modern Life team and its sister project Constructing Scientific Communities were excited to contribute their own research in innovative and unusual forms – a cake, a game, and a song and dance!

Dr Melissa Dickson  – Baking Sound 

I have long enjoyed baking as a form of respite from intense bouts of research and writing. Undoubtedly, procrastination baking, or “Procrastibaking”, can easily become a dangerous and time-consuming addiction. But there is nothing more soothing than sifting flour in the small hours of the morning, and there is nothing more satisfying than the kind of immediate, delicious results that can be produced in the kitchen after a long day working at a five year research project. Baking, according to some psychological studies, can even cultivate mindfulness, improve focus, and reduce stress. When the opportunity arose to present my research in the form of a baked good as part of the Curiosity Carnival’s Great Research Bake-Off, I was intrigued. Was there a way to use baking not as a means of academic procrastination, but as a new way of thinking about what I do? Was it possible to conceptualise and communicate my work in the form of a cake?

Taking up this challenge, I began to consider both the medium and the message. VictorianSoundI am a
literary historian of the Victorian period, so a Victoria Sandwich seemed an obvious choice. Structurally, I divide my work on Victorian soundscapes into four main areas: literature, science, medicine, and popular culture. This might be signified by 4 tiers to the cake. Sound itself, I might represent by way of popping candy, spread in between the tiers of the cake and along the top. Just as popping candy is something that you can see, hear, and feel pop, sound in this period was not just something audible; it was also something that could be seen, graphed, and measured for the first time, and something that could be felt as vibrations passing through the body and atmosphere. This led to the invention of new technologies, like the telegraph, telephone, microphone, gramophone, and phonograph. Cream horns, I reflected, might represent these new devices for capturing and amplifying sound and relaying it across time and space in different mediums.

ResearchBake-OffAs I spent the week baking sponge cakes, experimenting with butter creams, and working out how to mould cream horns, I found that my friends and family, though bemused, began to show genuine interest not only in offering their services as taste-testers, but in the research questions that I posed. At the Bake-Off itself, as the public wandered through our marquis, I found that the researchers’ cakes functioned as easily grasped, material props from which to begin intriguing conversations. An edible medium seemed to enhance the conversation, literally making the concepts easier to digest. And once I’d wandered the stalls and eaten a few cupcake tumours, pondered the role of language with the aid of a swiss roll, and tasted the earth’s atmosphere depicted in icing, I realised that the associated touch, taste, and sight of the cakes also made their lessons more memorable. All my hours of procrastibaking, it seems, had not been such a waste of time after all.


Dr Sally Frampton – Playing Science 

“Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious individual will revive them”…

Current medical theory? An obsolete practice? Or entirely made-up?

This was just one of the weird and wonderful statements we put to people who came to visit our Mind-Boggling Medical History stall at the Curiosity Carnival. Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game we’re developing (funded by the AHRC) which is designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys to brain size to transplanted heads, we challenged visitors to decide which statements were about current medical practice, which were based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which we had…well….just made up entirely. As we’ve found on previous occasions, the game sparks fascinating conversations about how medical ideas come in and out of fashion and how the truth of medicine is often stranger than fiction. Statements relating to phrenology, for example, (the nineteenth-century theory that skull shape could tell you about brain shape and this in turn could tell you about a person’s personality) generated conversations about modern day neuroscience and the use of imaging to connect behaviour to brain structure. While other statements about gender and anatomy provoked debate and discussion about the different ways in which both men and women’s bodies and minds have been understood. The day was great fun for us, and we got to learn more about what aspects of health and medicine really fascinate people. One of the most enjoyable parts was being challenged on the way we categorised statements: not everyone agreed with our decisions about what was historical and what was contemporary, and how we determine what scientific ‘truth’ is. This is what we hope the game will do: get people thinking about medicine in its past and present contexts and show that the differences between the two are not always clear or straightforward!

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Mind-Boggling Medical History at the Curiosity Carnival was hosted by Daniel Burt, Sarah Chaney, Molly Fennelly and Sally Frampton.


Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown – Performing Digestive Health

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity, along with five researchers from across the University of Oxford, to work with the multi-talented musician and song-writer Jonny Berliner, as a part of the carnival called Musical Abstracts. We each worked with Jonny to turn our research into a song for a popular audience. For mine, I chose what we would now call the ‘gut-brain axis’, and what the Victorian’s knew as the dynamic relationship between stomach and mind. I give a brief explanation of my thought process in the following video, but what I wanted to highlight with the song was the attention that many writers in the nineteenth century paid to the interconnections between gastrointestinal and psychiatric health, and how this was constructed across disciplines and genres. The title and recurring refrain is taken from an advertisement for Holman’s Liver Pad in 1893, which stated: ‘The Stomach is the Absolute Monarch of Humanity. Supreme is its rule! Neglect it and punishment is certain! Injure it and its vengeance is premature death!’

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From Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 154 (Dec 1893) 938 p.10.

Working with Jonny on the lyrics really helped me to think in different ways about my research and forced me to reflect on the central ‘message’ without the opportunity of disclaimers or footnotes.

Magnificently, Jonny managed to compose it as swing music, so I was able to combine the project with my favourite hobby and choreographed a lindy hop routine to accompany the song, which was performed four times throughout the carnival at various locations around Oxford.

 

Watch the video of the performance below!

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Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Michaelmas Term 2017

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

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

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Tuesday 24 October 2017 (Week 3)
Dr Helen Cowie, University of York
From the Andes to the Outback: Acclimatising Alpacas in the British Empire
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Abstract: This paper examines attempts to naturalise the alpaca in the British Empire. In the nineteenth century Britain made concerted efforts to appropriate useful plants and animals and acclimatise them within its own colonies. The alpaca was a prime target for acclimatisers on account of its silken wool, which was manufactured into a range of luxury textiles. Its export was, however, banned by law in Peru and Bolivia, so the animals had to be smuggled out of the Andean states and shipped illegally to Britain and Australia. The paper studies the circuits of exchange that facilitated the transfer of alpacas from one continent to another and considers how British subjects in places as diverse as Bradford, Liverpool, Sydney and Arequipa promoted and benefited from the naturalisation scheme. It situates alpaca acclimatisation within a wider discourse of agricultural ‘improvement’, bio-piracy and imperial adventure.

Tuesday 7 November 2017 (Week 5)
Professor Martin Willis, Cardiff University
The Good Places of Sleep: Nineteenth-Century Utopian Fictions and Sleep Research
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College
Abstract: We seem obsessed by the quality of our sleep in the early twenty-first century, yet the high point of sleep research was the second half of the nineteenth century, and particularly the period from 1880-1900, when modern sleep studies began. For the Victorians, sleep was an active state, (linked often to other cognitive pathologies and dissonances such as catalepsy and epilepsy) which enabled or disabled certain functions of mind and body. How one slept was therefore of considerable interest to the general public as well as to physiologists, physicians and neurologists. Concurrent with this avid attention to the epistemologies of sleep, utopian fictions employed sleep as a foundation for asking questions of ideal lives and worlds. Often, other worlds were entered through the medium of sleep. This seminar will consider the connections between sleep and utopia and ask whether sleep is itself a good place.
Tuesday 21 November (Week 7)
Professor Kirsten E Shepherd-Barr, University of Oxford
Infectious Ideas: Mechanisms of Transmission in the 19th Century
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College
Abstract: This paper explores the semantic instability of the term “contagion” in the nineteenth century as refracted through theatre and performance, with key examples as case studies. I’ll look at 19th-century theatrical engagements with evolution, biology, and other related sciences, to show theatre’s preoccupation with mechanisms of transmission broadly conceived—from imaginative versions of heredity (including telegony in Ibsen and Strindberg, for instance) to breastfeeding on stage in Herne and Brieux to the “contagious” theatricality at the heart of Charlotte Mew’s short story “A White Night.” These and other examples can help us think about how and when the line began to blur between a strictly medical definition of contagion and a fuzzier “social disease” usage, onto which theatre cottoned very early on. I will then trace the powerful legacy of these theatrical engagements with contagion, looking first at how Artaud radically extends earlier metaphoric uses of contagion into his immersive, experiential “plague” and finally exploring the present day in which virtual contagion games allow the user to “perform” plagues and pandemics. A unifying thread running through all of these examples is how contagion relates to definitions of culture (e.g. Greenblatt, Foucault) founded, paradoxically, on containment and control. Finally, I will explore briefly how all of this relates to the wider issue of how to forge productive disciplinary cross-contaminations in a professional environment that increasingly regulates, directs, and manages trans- or interdisciplinarity.

Contagion Cabaret

A unique collaboration between The Theatre Chipping Norton and Oxford University

Wednesday 27 September, 7.45pm The Chipping Norton Theatre

Girl In Gas Masks Holds a Red Ballon

Image: iStock.com/WilliamSherman

A unique collaboration between The Theatre Chipping Norton and Oxford University
Killer germs, superbugs, pestilent plagues and global pandemics have fascinated writers, musicians and thinkers for centuries. As disease spreads through a culture, likewise myths and ideas travel virally through film, literature, theatre and social media.

Dreamt up in the plague-ridden imagination of the Theatre’s Artistic Director John Terry, join a cast of familiar faces including Marcus D’Amico (Frankie and Johnny) and Anna Tolputt (Around the World in 80 Days), alongside scientists and literary researchers from Oxford University for an evening of infectious extracts from plays and music, past and present. Be sure to bring your antiseptic wipes!

For more information and to book tickets see http://www.chippingnortontheatre.com/index.php?p=whatson&id=3601

A Medical Student’s Perspective….

This is a guest post written by Wan Ting Yew, a first year in pre-clinical medicine at University College Dublin. Wan Ting recently undertook a summer project to work on the data collected at Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word, a one day conference at the DLR LexIcon Library in collaboration with Dr Elizabeth Barrett and UCD Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Diseases of Modern Life project.

Hello everyone, this is my very first time writing a blog and it’s a pleasure to write about my take on a medical humanities event as a medical student.

In late June, I had the opportunity to attend a medical humanities event because of a summer project on the role of literature in medicine that I have been undertaking at University College Dublin.  So here I’ll be talking about how I’ve learned new perspectives about medicine and doctors after this taster session of the medical humanities. Mind you, the field (despite it being called medical humanities) was very alien to me: I did not even know the difference between theology and philosophy, so you can imagine how awkward I felt during group conversations and how much of the talks simply washed over me. ’ If you’re still reading thus far, you have my heartfelt gratitude. Now, on to the real stuff.

On Tuesday, 27th June, the TORCH Medical Humanities  programme at Oxford hosted an event called Accounts of Illness in Historical and Modern Texts: Exploring Methods in Medical Humanities Research across Disciplines.  The organiser of the event, Professor Katherine Southwood (Theology, University of Oxford), gave the welcome address, during which she provided a summarized framework of the event in three simple words: Illness, Methods, Texts.

The talks started with a physician speaker, Dr Jeff Aronson from the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health, University of Oxford.  His talk was about autopathography: written works about the author’s own experiences of illness. He outlined the different forms that illness narratives have taken over the course of time: from paper to the web. He also talked about the underlying themes embedded in these written narratives, which include denial, misattribution of causes and somatisation; I found these important to keep in mind when listening to patient complaints. Then he explained why people write autopathographies, why we should read them and the limitations of such pathographies. Next, Catherine Kelsey who is a nurse lecturer from University of Bradford, further explored potential applications of illness narratives, not only to gain insight into patient life but also to use that insight to develop meaningful skills and treatment approaches. These talks reminded me of the sociology lectures I’ve attended in the past, in which the lecturer has repeatedly mentioned the need to shift the focus of healthcare from the biomedical model to a more humanistic one, in other words, to see the patient beyond the accumulation of bodily symptoms and consider their illness within the context of everyday life. The reasons and causes behind this loss of compassion in clinicians are for another conversation albeit an interesting one. Reading patient memoirs though, does seem like a nice solution. Knowing the patient’s story itself is certainly more powerful than simply being aware that there is a story. Although patient memoirs cannot replace the objective list of a patient history, they are a way to prevent the hustle of clinical work from corroding our sense of compassion. I understand if this sounds very superficial, heck I’ve only finished my first year in pre-clinical medicine so what would I know about compassion fatigue. But what I do know as a medical student is how tempting it is to start cutting corners when the workload is piling up and you start feeling tired from the stress.

Three of the talks were close readings of specific literature. All three speakers were from the University of Oxford: Professor Elizabeth Hsu, an anthropologist walked us through China’s medical case records from 2nd century BC; Professor Olivia Vázquez-Medina, a fellow and tutor in Spanish, explained the inner workings of the Sylvia Molloy’s book Desarticulaciones (2010), a carer’s auto-fictional account of Alzheimer’s disease; Dr Lisa Mullen from the Department of English Language and Literature guided us in unravelling key passages of a patient memoir titled In Gratitude by Jenny Diski. The methodologies of the speakers’ research were too unfamiliar for me to comprehend, but the general idea I appreciated was the importance of considering the culture where the author lived as well as the author’s life story, as this knowledge allows us to accurately understand the narratives they present and what matters to sick people the most. For example, the ‘heart’ can have entirely different meanings and functions in Chinese and English medical texts. Next, it was interesting to learn about the process of recovery from the patients’ point of view.  Dr Hannah Newton, a historian from the University of Reading, spoke about her research on this topic. She taught us that the joy of recovering from illness is largely associated with the bodily senses and this is intertwined with abatement of emotional distress. Her talk focuses on what bothers people suffering from illness the most: sleep, appetite, and nausea. I found this a very meaningful way to reframe my mind set when considering a person’s recovery from illness. Having healed from a sprained ankle doesn’t just mean someone can walk again, it also means that they don’t have to constantly jolt awake from sleep when they turn the wrong way in bed.

Furthermore, there were also speakers who contemplated the role of medicine in society; that concepts of “compassion” and “professionalism” are more malleable than we think and how this malleability impedes moral healthcare. The introduction of the talk was very arresting so I started off feeling very enthusiastic. Sadly however, I could not keep up with the pace and unfamiliarity of the content so by the time the talk ended I can’t help but feel exasperated for missing out on an experience of a lifetime!

Furthermore, Dr Anna McFarlane from Glasgow University used science fiction as a way to critically evaluate what medicine can and cannot do. Her case study of Mary Shelley’s-“Frankenstein” allowed us to explore the controversial topic of medical ethics in terms of human reproduction within the safe confines of ‘fiction’. Delving deeper, Anna showed how Shelley’s personal experience of family deaths and miscarriages lead to such themes in her written works. As a student who used to think that hobbies and studies should be completely separate, it is certainly enlightening to appreciate how much benefit fiction can offer us other than a simple escape from reality: to contemplate the seemingly unthinkable and as windows into people’s lives.

During the day, there was a very provocative discussion among the speakers and attendees about the nature of interdisciplinarity and its use in medicine. Given that there were people from a variety of disciplines: theology, anthropology, medicine, IT, language literature etc., it should be less likely that no such conversation arose. It was interesting to see the conversation unveil how much overlap there is between the research in different disciplines. Medical humanities is notoriously difficult to define as a field or a practice but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Someone also pointed out that subject hierarchy has to be abolished to improve the development of knowledge and for interdisciplinary conversation to be real. Despite my inexpertise in the humanities, I can definitely relate to this as a student; ever since I started school the academic culture is that students who do well in their studies naturally progress to specialize in the sciences, whereas the ‘underperformers’ can only end up in the arts stream. This gives a false and dangerous image of the arts as being impractical and of little value. I could never manage a business course with the amount of accounting and languages they do, and I am definitely not athletic or artistic enough to pursue a career in the arts (both performance and visual) so why the heck should I have the higher stature in people’s views? In my opinion, this stigma prevents us from being open-minded as it makes us blind to the unique values of others and apprehensive to venture outside of our own specialized field. As we reached the end of the conversation, Professor Southwood pointed out something that I think is inherently important for every student and scholar: breaking the borders of each discipline to welcome interdisciplinary conversation would also require us to admit that we are not entirely unique in our academic endeavours, which might be very difficult to accept.

Overall, I found that the humanities subjects are about exploring different layers of a story. I found this very refreshing as I’ve always felt that scientific medicine tends to get too caught up in mechanical efficiency. Yes, both have their merits; though when it comes to providing healthcare, the humanities still have a lot to offer since we are, obviously, human. Of course this experience wouldn’t do anything for my end-of-semester exam grades (at least for the programme I am enrolled in), but it’s one of the rare experiences that make me see a deeper layer of meaning in the bits and pieces of everyday life.

Post-script on the less medical realizations:

Even though I’ve been told by many people that every profession has an irreplaceable value, I’ve only meaningfully appreciated importance of the humanities and its contributions from the bottom of my heart after hearing about the actual work behind the published articles. What I realized as I let these thoughts stew is: we can only genuinely respect something when we know about it, not of it, because that would be too superficial and the more accurate word for it would be ‘politeness’ instead of respect.

Wan Ting Yew

Stressed out? So were the Victorians.

This interview with Professor Sally Shuttleworth originally appeared on Science Squared, an ERC project. Read the whole article here.  

We didn’t invent the ‘diseases of modern life’; people in Victorian England worried about anxiety and overwork, too.

A leading doctor has warned that the pace of the information age means our brains are subject to as much stress in a single month as our grandparents faced in a lifetime. His name? James Crichton Browne.

Alas, he was unavailable for interview as he died in 1938 at the ripe old age of 97.

Crichton Browne lived part of his life in the Victorian era, but his worries echo the concerns of 21stcentury commentators – as well as watercooler conversations in offices around the world. He feared that the stresses of information overload would cripple the minds of professionals; that schoolchildren were overburdened by packed curricula and exams; and that we had created a damaging environment that needed to be reimagined.

Fast-forward to today and everything has changed – except our anxiety about the diseases of modern life. We fear burnout, the information delugeaddictionoverloaded curriculumpollution and threats to our work-life balance. These worries may be well-founded but are far from new.

“It is claimed that in our current information age we suffer as never before from the stresses of overload and the speed of global networks,” says Sally Shuttleworth, professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. “The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the 19thcentury.”

The uncanny similarities between Victorian-era concerns and modern anxieties is revealed by an ERC-backed project that delves into literature, science and medicine to explore parallels between reactions to ‘progress’ in the 19th and 21st centuries. The ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ study takes its title from a book published in 1876 by Benjamin Ward Richardson, an English medical reformer.

Instant information

“The conditions of work changed massively in the Victorian era,” says Shuttleworth. “Work was no longer dominated by natural daylight hours and there was a huge growth not only of factories but of office culture in industrial cities.”

Financial services and other professional employees began commuting to their offices in London and taking work home with them. Worse, the arrival of the telegram meant that stock brokers were always on. Information began to flow from Asian markets early in the morning and those who clocked off before the New York stock exchanges closed risked losing their shirt.

“Instead of waiting weeks for a ship to arrive with goods and pricing information, they were bombarded all the time,” says Shuttleworth. “Information was now communicated in an instant via telegraph. Cases of suicide among bankers were widely publicised.”

Stress was taken very seriously, she adds: “The literature shows that doctors frequently diagnosed stress and recommended that their patients take six months off to recover.”

Utopian dreams

Like many of their reforming contemporaries who helped to shape 19th century thinking on health in the industrial age, doctors like Benjamin Ward Richardson campaigned for social and medical changes to improve the quality of life.

High-minded reformers and ‘sanitarians’ dreamed of fixing modern life by creating ideal cities – cleaner, greener, healthier. “They were trying to resolve every problem that might challenge attempts to live a healthy life, from diet and work regimes through to housing and smoke pollution,” explains Shuttleworth.

Richardson created a vision of a utopian city, which he named Hygeia. It attracted attention from newspapers around the world – even spawning commercial spin-offs such as health resorts run by canny entrepreneurs.

“It is extraordinary to find that many of the things we think of as being part of the green agenda were already considered deeply by the Victorians as part of their efforts to combat the problems not only of stress and overwork, but also environmental pollution,” Shuttleworth says. “There was a strong awareness of the relationship between mental and bodily health, and social and physical environment.”

Happy 100th birthday

The sanitarians believed humans were under-achieving their true potential. Richardson was influenced by Richard Owen, an anatomist, who declared that humans should live until the age of 100. Hs reasoning was based on findings that most animals lived to around five times their age of maturity.

If people embraced the reformers’ prescription for healthy life – exercise, enjoyment and moderation in all things – it was forecast that general life expectancy could hit 100 by the year 2150, with many living to 120 or 130. This is a little optimistic by today’s forecasts, but nonetheless remarkably prescient. Average lifespans around the world have, indeed, lengthened greatly – to just over 80, for instance, in Europe. And more people are approaching 100.

“The solutions offered by the Victorians were in many ways very similar to our own lifestyle movements,” says Shuttleworth. “Virtually all the reformers insisted on the value of regular exercise, and many were vegetarian, often accompanied by a strong belief in animal rights.”

They conducted campaigns against smoking, tobacco and alcohol, and spoke out forcefully against forms of slavery in the workplace. “Particular targets were the pressures of exams on school children, and a long-hours culture in the office,” says Shuttleworth.