Event: Free Workshop for GCSE English Language Students!

On Tuesday 7th May, Diseases of Modern Life will be back in Dorset this time to talk to students on the theme of Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century. Using our free GCSE resources, we will situate Victorian ideas of health within the context of local literary legend Thomas Hardy’s writings, and encourage students to explore the links between fiction and non-fiction, as well as how preparation for English Language can aid you in English Literature (hint: it tests the same skills!).

The workshop will take place at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester, and the full programme can be seen below. We have sent invitations to all schools local to the area, but if you happen to be able to come along then please email catherine.charlwood@ell.ox.ac.uk to book places for your students – we’d be delighted to welcome you.

This workshop is the result of a collaboration between Diseases of Modern Life and the Thomas Hardy Society, specifically Dr Karin Koehler of Bangor University, Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, and – especially for the creative responses session – published author and Academic Director of the Thomas Hardy Society, Dr Faysal Mikdadi.



7 May 2019 

Free English GCSE Students Workshop
at Shire Hall, Central Dorchester

to help prepare students for unseen non-fiction prose element of the GCSE exam

10.00-10.30am Arrival and registration
10.30-10.45am Welcome and overview of the day

·         Why we’re here: learning objectives and expectations for the day

·         How we’ll approach the topic of illness and well-being: what topics we’ll be reading about and discussing, and a chance to raise any concerns

10.45-11.30am Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy

We will discuss a selection of poems/passages from the work of Thomas Hardy about the interactions, positive and negative, between people and nature. This will be our starting-point for thinking about what role nature might play in people’s well-being (globally and individually).

11.30am- 12.15pm Illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine

We will introduce a selection of non-fiction texts highlighting typical nineteenth-century concerns about illness and well-being – for example, the impact of sedentary lifestyles in urban settings and different theories about mental health – and explore some of the challenges for a 21st-century reader of understanding, analysing, and responding to such texts.

12.15-1.00pm FREE LUNCH
1.00-1.45pm Fiction versus non-fiction

Drawing on more examples from Thomas Hardy, who used non-fiction sources as an inspiration for his novels and stories, we will consider the relationship of fiction and non-fiction (which were less separate in nineteenth-century culture than now) to inform the analysis of nineteenth-century prose. How is reading a scientific or medical text different from reading fiction or poetry? How is it similar? How can English Language help you with English Literature and the other way around?

1.45-2.30pm Responding creatively to nineteenth-century concerns about illness and well-being

We will prepare creative responses – e.g. poems, short narratives, drawings – to the anxiety about the disconnection of nature and humans, in Hardy’s day and in ours. What links the nineteenth century to the present?

2.30-2.45pm Afternoon break

Refreshments provided

2.45-3.30pm Practical exercise

The day will end with a practical session in which participants and facilitators will collaborate on preparing an answer to a mock exam question featuring an unseen extract of nineteenth century literary non-fiction.

3.30-3.45pm Feedback
3.45pm Workshop ends


Teachers and students of English Literature at GCSE, IB or A Level might also be interested in the Thomas Hardy Society Essay Competition, which has a deadline of 30th April. As well as a £50 Amazon voucher, you could end up being published in a Thomas Hardy Society journal!

Pre-Printed Diaries and Almanacs: An Aid to Managing the Diseases of Modern Life?

Hannah Wills, our new Research Assistant, introduces her work on Victorian diaries.  

In the Victorian period, individuals complained of the quickening pace of life, of a greater ‘velocity in thought and action’ than had ever been experienced before.[1] I’m interested in exploring the practical tools that were available to manage this phenomenon, in terms of personal information management on paper. One available solution was the pre-printed diary or planner, marketed as a useful receptacle for everything from financial transactions to social engagements, from the day’s weather to daily food intake. An advert in the Spectator for 23 December 1848 described two such commercial publications, Letts’s Diary, or Bills-Due Book, and Letts’s Indispensable Almanack, both produced by the highly successful Letts stationary company, founded in 1796 by John Letts. As the advert for Letts’s almanac promised, such products were invaluable in ‘enabling Everybody to secure to himself a faithful Record of the Past, the Present, and the Future’.

The origins of British pre-printed diaries can be traced back to mid-eighteenth-century almanacs and pocket diaries of a similar nature. These diaries and almanacs had a range of contents, including selections of useful reference information, usually at the front, including weights and measures, conversion charts and notable public holidays, alongside entertaining anecdotes, brain-teasing puzzles and dated blank spaces for the writing of diary entries. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of printed diaries available for purchase, containing much of the same content.[2] One edition of Letts’s diary, published for the year 1874, began with a reference section that included the dates of the law and university terms, a list of the names and ages of the sovereigns of Europe and a table for calculating the interest on sums of money at different percentages. The rest of the diary was arranged with blank spaces for the insertion of dated diary entries, with two days set out per page.[3]

(Advert for Letts’s diaries from The Lancet, 7 Jan. 1871, Advertiser. Image credit: Google Books)

Pre-printed diaries and almanacs were marketed at a variety of individuals and professions in the nineteenth century. In a catalogue of their works for the year 1856, Letts, Son & Co. described a range of published editions of their popular diary. These included pocket versions, described as being of use to ‘Physicians’ and ‘Tourists’, as well as cheaper editions, more suited to ‘Mechanics, Warehousemen, &c’. Alongside those suited to particular professions, versions were also advertised ‘For Private Use, of Noblemen, Gentlemen, and Ladies’. Each edition was numbered, with different editions containing different reference information and a different arrangement of days printed on each page. A ‘new form for the pocket’, produced by Letts and marketed specifically at physicians, contained sections for recording daily appointments, births and vaccinations.

(The arrangement of the diary pages varied in different editions of the diary, as advertised in Letts’s catalogue. A Catalogue of Other Works, Published, Sold, or Manufactured by Letts, Son & Co. 1855. Image credit: Google Books)

Letts’s advertising positioned its products as practical aids for the management of time, as one solution to the problem of an increase in the pace of modern life. Musing on the general benefits of keeping a diary, Letts’s catalogue suggested to all diarists that ‘Before you lie down to sleep, or before you leave your dressing room in the morning… Read over the Entries of the Past Day to provide against any omission, and then those of to morrow (if there be any) to arrange your time in the most advantageous manner’.

Within the diaries themselves, one finds allusions to other modern ailments, including worry and mental strain. In addition to the reference sections at the beginning, and the middle pages used for recording daily activities, some diaries and planners contained adverts for other products. Letts’s number 42 diary for the year 1874 featured several full pages of adverts, some for items associated with stationary and the act of writing, including ‘Letts’s Patent Perpetual Inkstand’, Joseph Gillott’s ‘celebrated Steel Pens’, and a range of leather portmanteaus, expanding bags and cases, sold by John Pound & Co. Several medical adverts were also featured, including one for ‘Lamplough’s Pyretic Saline’, a patent medicine that promised to cure ‘Nervous Headache in a few minutes’. Just below was an advert for F. Walters & Co., ‘Manufacturers of Abdominal Supports For Ladies before and after Confinement’, and a range of ‘Artificial Legs, Arms, and Eyes’.

In the nineteenth century, patent medicines were often advertised in planners and almanacs. Many patent medicine companies designed and produced their own yearly planners, distributed for free, that featured adverts for their products alongside a reference calendar for the year.[4] It is possible that commercial stationers and patent medicine companies saw a connection between the desire to record one’s daily activities and engagements, and the desire to manage one’s health. It is striking that printed diaries and almanacs, tools for managing the pace of Victorian life, were also used to advertise medical products, some of which were aimed at combatting the diseases of modern life.

[1] James Crichton Browne, ‘The History and Progress of Psychological Medicine: An Inaugural Address’. Royal Medicine Society, Edinburgh, 1860. p. 9.

[2] Rebecca Steinitz, “Social Spaces for the Self: Organising Experience in the Nineteenth-Century British Printed Diary.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 16, no. 2 (2001): 161-74.  Hazel Tubman, “The First Pre-Printed Diaries: Origins, Development and Uses of an Information Genre, 1700-1850.” PhD thesis, University of Oxford, 2016.

[3] Letts’s Diary or Bills Due Book, and an Almanack for 1874. London: Letts, Son & Co., 1873.

[4] Louise Hill Curth, “Medical Advertising in the Popular Press: Almanacs and the Growth of Proprietary Medicines.” Pharmacy in History 50, no. 1 (2008): 3-16.

Victorian Speed – Time Flies When You’re Having FUN!

On Thursday 18th October, the Museum of the History of Science threw open its doors for its first ever ‘late’ – Victorian Speed: The Long History of Fast Living. With six separate activities based on our postdocs’ research interests and a Victorian photo booth to boot, we had a riotous evening of nineteenth century hijinks.

Here, the Diseases of Modern Life team reflect on their individual activities.

Dr. Hosanna Krienke

My “Timing the Victorians” quiz invited guests to try to guess the speed of various aspects of life in the 1800s. Many quiz-takers were amazed by how fast some things were (it took only 9 minutes to send a telegram from London to Bombay!), but were also caught off-guard by the slowness of other aspects of Victorian life (convalescent homes let patients stay by the seaside for a month or more to recover their health). I enjoyed hearing the ways people reasoned their way through the questions, and some even gasped or cheered when they discovered their hunches were correct. In the end, my aim was to help people imagine more concretely what life was like in the 1800s, so I was really pleased when one person reported that the event made her “reevaluate a nostalgic view of the Victorian era.”

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Hosanna Krienke, in Victorian dress, letting participants know they’re running out of time to answer! Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Eager to find out if they are correct! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Jean-Michel Johnston

My ‘telegraphic tweeting’ activity introduced visitors to the full experience of sending an ‘instant’ message in the Victorian age. After considering many of the practicalities of sending a telegram, from the limitations of post office opening hours to the relatively high cost of sending a mere 20 words, they were then encouraged to have a go at sending their chosen message to another visitor ‘across the line'(or, rather, table) using one of the replica telegraph apparatuses. It was great to see that people from a wide range of age groups had fun trying out this activity – some of the children who attended were natural ‘Morse coders’, and some of the adults enjoyed trying to bemuse their counterparts across the table by sending messages in foreign languages!


Tapping out a Morse message. Photo: Ian Wallman

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Receiving and decoding – the effort is palpable! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Alison Moulds

‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ introduced visitors to the pressures of retail work in the late nineteenth century. The title was drawn from Thomas Sutherst’s 1884 book about the plight of shop assistants, and I used pie charts to explore the long hours worked by those in retail, drawing on case studies from fiction, periodicals, autobiographies, and polemical writing. People were particularly surprised and aghast to hear about the demands placed on teenaged apprentices and the pressures of the ‘living-in’ system, which blurred the boundaries between work and leisure time. Visitors used blank pie charts and colouring pencils to plot their own average working day, and shared their retail work ‘horror stories’ on our interactive board. There were common themes between then and now, namely the long hours, the expectation to stand rather than sit, and the perennially rude customers. One women told me how, when working in a supermarket, a customer threw broccoli at her after hearing they’d run out of brie! In the feedback, several visitors suggested the activity had prompted them to find a new appreciation of our modern work-life balance.

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Alison Moulds looks on as participants colour in their own ‘A Day in the Life’ charts by the ‘Retail Horror Stories’ board. Photo: Ian Wallman


One member of the public shades in her ‘work time’. Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Sally Frampton

In the ‘Emergency’ quiz we introduced visitors to the history of first aid, as we got people sorting fact from fiction and past from present by testing them on first aid trivia. The development of the first aid movement was an important aspect to people’s growing awareness of the health risks of modern life in the nineteenth century, as organisations like the St. John Ambulance Association trained up railway workers, miners, police officers and others to deal with the accidents and illnesses that seemed to arise from new technologies and industries. For the game, visitors were given ten statements relating to first aid. They then had to decide whether they related to first aid practices in the past, current day first aid practice…or whether we had made it up! The idea was to get people thinking about how ideas and practices can come in and go out of fashion, and how even the strangest practices from the past were based upon theories that appeared valid at the time. For example, ‘Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious person will revive them’ (past) introduced people to the use of tobacco smoke enemas in the nineteenth century for resuscitation, a medical technology which seems completely bizarre now but which had its roots in the belief that quickly administering warmth and stimulation could be effective in to reviving the near dead. The tobacco enema also led to conversations about early attempts by doctors to find effective resuscitation techniques. The statement ‘a snakebite can be treated by sucking the poison out from the wound’ was another one that generated debate. Until relatively recently the practice was recommended in first aid manuals, but it today considered ineffective, and yet most people thought it a ‘present’ day practice, because it is still seen in TV and films. This led to discussion about how even when new medical evidence proves a medical idea is not right, the idea can linger on in wider culture.

Visitors enjoyed learning weird and wonderful facts about first aid and emergency medicine and the game proved a good way to get people thinking about first aid and to need to keep up-to-date with the current advice about what to do in an emergency!

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Our resident Victorian nurse, Dr. Sally Frampton, administers advice to players. Photo: Ian Wallman


Who knew Victorian First Aid could be so fun?! (We had a hunch). Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown

My exhibition, ‘Gastric Time’ started with a story. It was the story of Alexis St Martin, a Canadian man who was shot in the abdomen in 1822, which left him with a hole in his stomach through which the workings of digestion were made visible! People were intrigued and disgusted in equal measure as I recounted how American army surgeon William Beaumont carried out a series of experiments on St Martin which involved dipping bits of food into his stomach on a silk string and timing how long they took to break down! The language of ‘digestibility’ that was produced from the experiments led to a new way of thinking about food: in terms of time. After discussing how Victorian meals and dietetic rules differed from their modern experiences, they were keen to put their own hands in my oversized woollen stomach to choose their meals and try to beat the clock-time dice. If they succeeding in “digesting” 5 meals within 24 hours—symbolised by a giant steam-punk clock face—they were rewarded with a “good digestion” sticker, if not they were diagnosed with chronic indigestion! People enjoyed thinking about food in relation to broader ideas about standardising and controlling bodily processes and were not too shy to sit on our Victorian commode! My advertisement for a “rocking horse” cure for indigestion gave one man a new outlook on the French phrase “aller à la selle” (to have a bowel movement), while the exhibition as a whole purportedly changed many attitudes to dietary choices and even inspired a new MPhil project!


Dr. Emilie Taylor-Brown engaging her audience. Photo: Ian Wallman


Happy game players – some already wearing stomach stickers! Photo: Ian Wallman


Dr. Sarah Green

‘Clusters of hard wart-like growths around anus, causing considerable discomfort’. This was the kind of symptom that those visiting the Victorian Sexual Diseases Tombola were (hopefully) surprised to be presented with. And things didn’t get much better from there. In an age without antibiotics, chances of recovery from syphilis, gonorrhoea, and a whole host of other nasties were slim. By dipping into the tombola drum, visitors had assigned to them a variety of treatments that were at best useless, and at worst downright painful. Fancy a urethral cauterization? A spiked ring to wear round the penis at night? A washing out of the intimate parts with champagne? No, me neither. And that, as visitors came to realize, was the slow, tedious and repetitive nature of Victorian sexual disease treatment. As one visitor commented, ‘I’m glad I got my STI in 2018!’

Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

Dr. Sarah Green explains how the Sexual Health Tombola works. Pick a card, any card… Photo: Ian Wallman


One of the more horrifying treatments for problems of a sexual nature. Photo: Ian Wallman


We also had an extremely popular Victorian photo booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. (We may have got in on the action ourselves at the end of the evening…).


They’ve got props at the ready and poses sorted… Photo: Ian Wallman

VictorianSpeedEventatMuseumoftheHistoryofSciencebyIanWallman-5889 (1).jpg

…e voilà! Photo printed (a bit more instantaneously than in Victorian times). Photo: Ian Wallman


None of this would have been possible without a collaboration with colleagues at the Museum of the History of Science, especially Robyn Haggard: thank you for lending us your space to us – it formed the perfect backdrop for our research! For our Victorian get-up, we kindly thank the Oxfordshire Drama Wardrobe, and for our wonderful props, The Prop Factory

Most of all, thank you to our photographer, Ian Wallman, for capturing all the different facets of #VictorianSpeed so beautifully!

Thank you to everyone who came

or, in Morse Code,

– …. .- -. -.- / -.– — ..- / – — / . …- . .-. -.– — -. . / .– …. — / -.-. .- — .


Victorian Speed Event at Museum of the History of Science by Ian Wallman

PS. I got caught taking twitter photos by our fabulous photographer, Ian Wallman…

Stormy weather and human barometers

In 1873, a speaker at the Royal Dublin Society declared that ‘many persons are inclined to deny altogether the existence of a weather-science; the triteness of the subject, viewed as a break-ice topic of every-day conversation, having … tended to conceal from them the scientific aspect of the study of weather and climate’. Here, the speaker alluded to the weather as an ever-present but under-investigated topic. Interest in the weather had a long history – the keeping of weather journals was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth century, and from 1751 the Gentleman’s Magazine published a monthly weather report within its pages. The nineteenth century, though, saw more concerted efforts to chart the weather. As travel increased, the impact of the weather on both leisure and trade became an important factor, and monitoring conditions across the globe became easier with technologies such as telegraphy. Observatories collecting meteorological data including rainfall, wind direction, and temperature were set up at Greenwich and Kew in the 1840s, and the precursor of the Met Office established in the 1850s. Alongside these government-level endeavours was an army of amateur observers, organised and advised by the Meteorological Society.

Alongside intricate measurements using a variety of instruments, there was also some appeal to ‘natural’ weather indicators, particularly in almanacs and gardener’s diaries. An unusual suggestion for a ‘natural barometer’ was offered in 1897’s The History of the Weather, which claimed that blackcurrant lozenges imbibed moisture and could ‘predict’ rain. There were also said to be ‘human barometers’. Oft recounted was the case of Captain Catlin, who was apparently able to foretell rain by the pain experienced at the site of his leg amputation. The effect of weather on the body had long been recognised. The impulse to quantification exhibited by nineteenth-century observers, though, opened up the possibility of charting such effects more carefully. From 1838, the General Register Office collected weather information alongside mortality statistics, and renewed impetus was given to such studies following mid-century cholera epidemics. Some doctors began to argue for the necessity of a national network of medical observers of the weather. In this way, harmful atmospheric influences might be recognised and eradicated, or artificial environments constructed for ailing patients.

L0039176 Temperature & mortality of London, 1840-50

Temperature and mortality of London, 1840-50, from William Farr, Report on the mortality of cholera in England, 1848-49 (1852). Wellcome Library, London.

Several doctors saw the value in such an enterprise, and some were already volunteering observations to the Meteorological Society, particularly if they had a large site available to set up meteorological equipment. Hospitals or asylums often possessed open grounds where phenomena such as wind speed could be measured. A Meteorological Society inspector, checking the station set up on the Superintendent’s lawn at Caterham Asylum, was not impressed with what he saw in the 1870s, though: ‘I inspected Dr Adam’s instruments … [and] they were almost all bad’. Dr Adam was given a ticking off and a set of new, Society-approved, instruments for his observations.

In 1867, the management of Sussex Asylum decided that meteorological observations should be a regular exercise. The task fell to asylum chaplain Thomas Crallan, whose yearly meteorological reports were included in the asylum’s annual reports. Admissions and deaths were charted alongside fits and episodes of mania or melancholia. Crallan found high rates of admission in winter and summer that he attributed to the difficult circumstances that a cold winter caused for poor families, and increased sun exposure amongst farm labourers respectively. Though fits peaked in the winter and summer, Crallan noted that they occurred throughout the year. Therefore, he reasoned that the atmospheric force affecting them must be a less perceptible one than simple temperature. He turned to the lunar cycle. John Haslam had tried to chart the effect of lunar cycles on the excitement of Bethlem patients, but dismissed the idea as mere folklore. Crallan persevered in his study, however. He discovered that of 212 fits, all but five were ‘preceded or accompanied by considerable alteration in atmospheric pressure or solar radiation, or both’. Thus, he said, it was not the change of moon that was responsible for the fits, but a change in other weather conditions. It was the frequent coincidence of a changed moon and weather conditions, he said, that had led to the popular linkage of the moon and madness. He concluded: ‘so far as my own observations go, any marked change of atmospheric pressure, solar radiation, or both … is almost certain to be followed by [an] increased number of fits among the epileptics, or by a development of mania or melancholia.’

V0025061 Meteorology: various effects of the weather, from summer cal

Summer calm and winter storms. Lithograph after A.M. Perrot. Wellcome Library, London.

Crallan’s concern for determining a ‘cycle’ of mental distress fitted – as Niall McCrae observes in The Moon and Madness – with the late nineteenth-century reconfiguration of mania and melancholia as one cyclical illness, rather than two separate ones. Though he was undertaking his investigations in a self-consciously ‘scientific’ way, Crallan also appeared to be imagining the asylum patient as a kind of ‘natural barometer’. In the eighteenth century, an awareness of approaching weather tended to be seen as a marker of sensibility, with one’s affinity with the environment a sign of sensitivity. During the nineteenth century, a good deal of attention was paid to the ‘natural barometers’ of the animal kingdom, which tended to be the lower animals – frogs and insects. This is rather wonderfully illustrated by the ‘Tempest Prognosticator’ of George Merryweather, which predicted storms based on the movement of leeches. In imagining the asylum patient as a kind of human barometer, keen to atmospheric changes, doctors were (consciously or unconsciously) aligning them with the animals of weather folklore – a link that fitted into wider discourses about insanity, degeneration and ‘de-evolution’.


Merryweather’s Tempest Prognosticator. When agitated, the leeches attempted to climb out of the jars and triggered a bell.

What became of medical meteorology, then? The attempts of bodies such as the Association Medical Journal to institute a nationwide network of medical observers proved difficult, as doctors disagreed over the specifics of how to record illness in tabular form. Nevertheless, attempts to correlate weather and mental distress continue to appear sporadically – several researchers have linked suicide and the advent of spring, for example, while moon lore continues to circulate amongst hospital emergency departments, with trepidation before a full moon and an anticipated influx of patients. Our Royal Dublin Society speaker would no doubt be pleased by this continued research into the weather’s effects, even if it does also remain the stereotypical ‘break-ice topic of every-day conversation’.

Read more

Katharine Anderson, Predicting the Weather:Victorians and the Science of Meteorology (2005).

James Rodger Fleming, Meteorology in America, 1800-1870 (1999).

Niall McCrae, The Moon and Madness (2011).

J.W. Moore, Royal Dublin Society. Afternoon Scientific Lectures on Public Health, 1873. Lecture III. Meteorology in its bearing on health and disease (1873).

R.E. Scoresby-Jackson, On the Influence of Weather upon Disease and Mortality (1863).

Guest blog: The Tragedy of Amy Levy

Our latest offering is a guest blog post from Mary Chapman, a KCL graduate who will shortly begin her PhD at Leeds. Her doctoral thesis will focus on the impact of gendered psychological medicine on urban women, 1845-1900, and in this post she gives us a fascinating account of just one of these women: author Amy Levy.

Urbanisation increased dramatically during the mid-to-late 19th century, and modernity became synonymous with the swelling cities. To many, this evoked a growing anxiety; old traditions and morality were being thrown off in favour of new codes, new laws, and new ways of living that destabilized Victorian society. These changes were inextricably linked to urban centres, where sprawling populations and poor conditions highlighted the need for reform and fostered progressive communities. This was especially the case amongst women, many of whom found that, in cities, they could lead lives outside of the domestic sphere. However, these independent, working women posed a threat to established gender roles, and so – it was thought – to their very biology.


Gustave Dore, Over London by Rail (1872)

The topic of modernity and its influence on sanity was the focus of much discussion amongst late-Victorian mind doctors. Eminent physicians such as Henry Maudsley, John Bucknill, and Daniel Tuke believed that the uncertainty and competition intrinsic to metropolitan life increased the likelihood of mental illness. Bucknill and Tuke, in their influential Manual of Psychological Medicine, argued that ‘civilisation, with its attendant knowledge and education, creates social conditions […] which of necessity involve risks (to employ no stronger term) which otherwise would not have existed’. They saw mental disease as the pathological result of the undue application of the brain to tasks outside of its usual capacity.

In neglecting their ‘natural’ role as wives and mothers, women were forcing their bodies and minds to work towards entirely unsuitable goals. Doctors feared that this would lead to exhaustion, disease, or worse: madness. The physical changes inherent in female biology were thought to cause mental imbalance if not properly managed; any energy expended in pursuits other than the domestic could result in tragedy. Modern life, by its very nature, presented many dangers to female psychology.

The suicide of Amy Levy in September 1889, at age 27, appeared to be just such a case. Levy, a young woman writer very much a part of the London literati community, suffered from depressive episodes throughout much of her adult life. When in the capital she resided at the family home in Endsleigh Gardens, and socialised with a mixed set of social reformers, artists, and writers. Educated to university level, Jewish, and single (her sexual preference was for women, but she struggled to form lasting attachments), Levy identified as a woman on the fringes of conventional society. Living on the margins of many communities, she must have felt at a loss to know how to belong.


Amy Levy

Indeed, much of her poetry is filled with longing, and a sense of being bereft from life itself. Her last collection of poems, entitled A London Plane Tree and Other Verse, connects this feeling with city life. Levy takes great delight in people-watching; in Ballade of an Omnibus she describes the pleasure of ‘the scene whereof I cannot tire […] the city pageant, early and late.’ Yet she is unable to feel a part of the crowd, suffering private, internal anguish: ‘I would give anything to stay/the little wheel that turns in my brain.’ (A March Day in London) London nurtures her anxiety, until she cannot tell whether it is herself or the city that is out of sorts- ‘what is it ails the place?’ (London in July)

Levy’s writings, along with her heart-wrenching letters to friends like New Woman Clementina Black, suggest that she was suffering from some form of depression. In a note written in the year of her death, she cries ‘O Clemmy, Clemmy, is everybody’s life like this? I ought to have made something out of mine, but it’s too late […] [I am] dragging round all day, crying half the night.’ Levy appears to have felt a strong relationship between her unhappiness and her life in London, writing despairingly to Black, ‘I wish I were never coming back [to London] but I am in for another 60 years.’ She was at her most cheerful when travelling on the Continent with friends, and although she returned to a loving family and busy social network in the capital, the strain of modern life – with its demands on her writing, and the tax on her energy levels by the rota of parties and calls – was exhausting. Above all, London brought into sharp relief her sense of disconnection from other people.

However, Levy’s depression was categorised in a very different way by her contemporaries. Gossip about her suicide, as Judith Wilson notes, was ‘constructed in the terms of the time’. Her death caused a minor sensation amongst the intellectual set in London, and many notices ran in the papers speculating about the circumstances. Her peers blamed her lifestyle and heritage, or situated her within a romantic, literary tradition of over-sensitive, nervous youth. Most of all, she was seen as a beautiful, lonely – and therefore vulnerable and tragic – woman. As Bucknill and Tuke had warned, Levy had, it seemed to some commentators, run a risk that in the end proved too great. She had fallen a ‘victim [to] the pressures of emancipation’.

-Mary Chapman

Introducing the India Office Medical Archives Project

We are very happy to be featuring a guest post from Alex Hailey, who has kindly agreed to introduce to our readers the India Office Medical Archives at the British Library. Apart from the records mentioned below, our project also works with medical periodicals published in colonial South Asia. Our colleague Sally Frampton from the Constructing Scientific Communities project is also conducting a study of vaccination debates in Britain and their transnational ramifications in the nineteenth century.


The India Office Medical Archives project is funded by the Wellcome Trust to identify and catalogue material relating to health and disease within the records of the East India Company and India Office, held at the British Library.


Disease was a major challenge to the imperial project in India. The records document the efforts to maintain the military and civil administration in good health, and later attempts to improve wider public health and sanitation. Statistical returns, correspondence, reports on drug trials and epidemics, patient case studies and educational materials all present a full picture of developing medical knowledge and its translation into public policy.

Ref: IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login, 25 Oct 1850

Ref: IOR/F/4/2398/129162 Regarding a Doolie of very ingenious construction invented by Surgeon J S Login, 25 Oct 1850

Benefits of cataloguing

The holdings consist of over 14km of records created by the East India Company, the British Government Board of Control, the India Office and the Burma Office. They are administratively complex, and tracing subjects across the different departments can be time-consuming and frustrating. Cataloguing increases visibility and enables access.

Project so far

So far entries for over 3,300 records have been published on the Library’s Search our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Authority files for key subjects, individuals and institutions are being created and linked to relevant descriptive entries for ease of access, potentially opening up the collections for researchers with a single search.

A selection from the records

The collections contain administrative reports and statistics across a range of topics, for example smallpox vaccination. The records document the introduction of vaccination, the challenge posed by older inoculation practices (variolation), and the debate over the regulation of vaccine practices through legislation. Also documented are the difficulties experienced in producing and transporting valid lymph matter throughout India.

IOR/F/4/169/2985 Measures taken to introduce smallpox vaccination to Bencoolen from the Bengal Presidency, 1803-04

IOR/F/4/169/2985 Measures taken to introduce smallpox vaccination to Bencoolen from the Bengal Presidency, 1803-04

Records document the establishment and development of medical institutions, from hospitals, asylums and sanatoria to medical schools and colleges. Detailed information on buildings, staffing and equipment requirements, treatments offered, and annual reports can be found in the collections.

Mss Eur D712/4 Volume of layout plans for typical hospitals and units thereof made for British Station Hospitals Committee (c1917-19)

Mss Eur D712/4 Volume of layout plans for typical hospitals and units thereof made for British Station Hospitals Committee (c1917-19)

The project has also identified a number of previously unpublished reports on epidemics and drug trials. The Government of India Medical Proceedings for 1873-1914 contain numerous reports on the treatment of snake-bite, leprosy and sleeping sickness, to name a few.

IOR/P/1005 Jul 1877 nos 43-108. Experiments in treating leprosy with Gurjun oil

IOR/P/1005 Jul 1877 nos 43-108. Experiments in treating leprosy with Gurjun oil

The records also document the development of bacteriology and tropical medicine, and the international exchange of medical knowledge. Officers in the Indian Medical Service regularly conducted research and contributed to international investigations, participating for example in Royal Society investigations into malaria and sleeping sickness. The period 1890-1920 saw the establishment of a network of laboratories throughout India and Burma, and the collections include material relating to the Bombay Bacteriological Laboratory (now Haffkine Institute) and numerous Pasteur Institutes, initially established to provide rabies treatment.

IOR/V/27/856/16 Preparation and use of anti-plague vaccine (Bombay: Times Press, 1907)

IOR/V/27/856/16 Preparation and use of anti-plague vaccine (Bombay: Times Press, 1907)

Other resources

These records complement other resources for the history of colonial medicine in India. The National Library of Scotland’s Medical History of British India portal provides free access to digitised India Office publications, including the Scientific Memoirs by Medical Officers of the Army of India from 1884 to 1901. Publications from 1902 onwards are held at the British Library.

As a Wellcome Trust Research Resources-supported collection, researchers from all disciplines are encouraged to apply for a Research Bursary to use our collections.

The project is ongoing until October 2015, and we are happy to answer any questions about the collections.

Alex Hailey
India Office Medical Archives project


The choice of title will probably betray my addiction to the nineteenth-century press, but taking advantage of the benevolence of my colleagues I decided to put research into practice and revive some of the conventions of Victorian journalism on our own blog. I learned to treasure this word, “Ourselves”, very early on in my research. Its sudden appearance on a yellow-tinged page always held the promise of some important discovery to be made about one aspect of the press world or the other: Was business going well or was the journal struggling? Had the post office failed, once again, to deliver the newspaper to its subscribers? Was the editor going to reveal precious information about the circulation and readership of his paper? Or was he simply letting the world know that he had decided to throw away his editorial pen, frustrated by the lack of public and official patronage? (Before you ask, yes, most of the editors I dealt with were men…) Thankfully, the news I would like to share today is much more cheerful. Those who, like me, have spent countless hours sifting through Indian and British newspapers and periodicals will have already guessed that what follows is a brief report of our own project activities.

Last weekend provided us with an exciting opportunity to introduce our research projects to a slightly different audience than the one we usually interact with: the ladies and gentlemen who participated in Meeting Minds, a series of activities organized by the University of Oxford as part of its Alumni Weekend 2014. This was the eighth event of this kind organized in Oxford and followed two similar meetings which took place earlier this year in Hong Kong and New York. St Anne’s College, where our project is based, greeted its alumni with a medley of activities which included, among others, a writers’ showcase and a seminar on the past and future of the printed word. We are grateful to our Principal, Tim Gardam, for inviting us to take part in this event, and especially to the audience, for cheerfully foregoing the sunny, beautiful autumn morning and joining us for an hour-long discussion on “Diseases of Modern Life: Stress, Strain and Overload in the Nineteenth Century”. Their enthusiasm for our project, reflected in the questions and the discussion that followed, was particularly encouraging and generous!

The seminar began with our principal investigator, Prof. Sally Shuttleworth, introducing our research projects and highlighting the contemporary relevance of the topic we study. Stress, information overload and the long-hours culture, Sally argued, are by no means phenomena confined to the contemporary world. Just like today, Victorian experiences of modernity—of the “difference posed by the present”, as Partha Chatterjee wrote in his discussion of Kant’s work on Enlightenment—were equally infused with concerns about physical and mental wellbeing, about air and sound pollution, over-sensory stimulation and unhealthy work practices. Sally’s discussion of Benjamin Ward Richardson’s work revealed the contemporary resonances of his vision of Hygeia, the “City of Health”. Needless to say, all of us were particularly receptive to Victorian medical reformers’ suggestions that a six-month holiday is beneficial to a healthy and productive working life!

The seminar continued with talks by postdoctoral researchers Amelia Bonea, Jennifer Wallis and Melissa Dickson, each of whom focused on a distinct but interrelated aspect of Victorian perceptions of health. Amelia introduced the audience to a slightly different site of work than the ones usually studied by scholars of Victorian Britain: the office and the plethora of occupational hazards associated with it, among which were tuberculosis, “severe colds”, diseases of the digestive and circulatory systems, eye strain and fatigue, headaches, backaches and repetitive strain injuries such as writer’s cramp and telegraphist’s cramp. She discussed the changing aetiology and treatment options for these latter conditions, explaining how they were related to changes in workers’ compensation legislation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Gowers, Writer's Cramp

W. R. Gowers’ illustration of writer’s cramp (1886)

Jennifer’s talk took us back in time to mid-nineteenth century Ben Rhydding, a popular hydropathic establishment where, we discovered, Londoners could also experience the benefits of a compressed air bath. Such air baths were part of a transnational circuit of medical ideas and practices and enjoyed popularity in continental Europe as well, with Lyon and Zurich being some of the other notable centres of treatment. They were considered particularly beneficial in the treatment of lung diseases such as tuberculosis.

Air bath from Thomson, Ben Rhydding The AsclepiadAir bath in Ben Rhydding (1862)

Finally, Melissa’s talk drew attention to another aspect of nineteenth-century life and health: sound and its therapeutic properties. While most of the research conducted so far on Victorian cities has focused on sound pollution—the “nausea of noise”, as Melissa aptly put it in another post on this blog—her current research aims to show that sound had curative powers as well, for example in the treatment of psychiatric conditions. We all heaved a sigh of relief on hearing that the cat piano or Katzenklavier, that bizarre musical instrument which was envisaged as an effective tool in the treatment of psychiatric patients, was not eventually put into practice.

For those of you who would like to find out more about our talks, the seminar will be made available shortly as a podcast at podcasts.ox.ac.uk. As always, we are very happy to hear from scholars and members of the public interested in similar research topics, so do get in touch with us via email or the comments section below.

Amelia Bonea


Partha Chatterjee, Our Modernity (Rotterdam: SEPHIS/CODESRIA, 1997).

B. W. Richardson, Hygeia: A City of Health (London: Macmillan, 1876)