Collaborating with the Thomas Hardy Society


The last blog post introduced why we created GCSE resources, while this one explains how we’ve used them in events with teachers and students.

Knowing that Thomas Hardy’s works lent themselves well to the themes of Diseases of Modern Life, and that the Thomas Hardy Society had good links with educators in the area, we decided to team up to produce two free workshops: the first for teachers of GCSE English Language, the second for students. Dr Karin Koehler, Lecturer in 19th Century Literature at Bangor University, and Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, worked with Dr Catherine Charlwood of the Diseases of Modern Life project, to make these events happen.

holding sliede

With teachers…

Our workshop for teachers, held on 12th April, was called ‘Engaging Students in Nineteenth-Century Prose: Research-Based Resources for Teachers’ and was held at the iconic Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester. Originally built in 1797, (much) later Hardy served as a magistrate at the court, and Martha Brown – whose hanging in 1856 Hardy witnessed – is said to be the inspiration for Hardy’s Tess.

The free seminar directly addressed the potential lack of familiarity with C19th non-fiction texts, and the resulting lack of confidence teaching them, by emphasising the overlap between fiction and non-fiction and hence the possibility of using similar methods to approach them.

post its

Using Post-Its to capture what students say about non-fiction and the challenges/anxieties in teaching this aspect of the GCSE course

CC teacher

Never let it be said that the DoML team aren’t passionate about engaging others!

The workshop placed extracts from scientific and medical texts alongside selections from Hardy’s novels and poems. For example, an extract from Mantell’s Wonders of Geology was juxtaposed with the cliff-hanger scene from Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. Teachers were invited to use techniques familiar to them from teaching fiction and poetry to approach the non-fiction.

Karin periodicals

Dr Karin Koehler explaining the intermingling of literary and scientific texts in Victorian periodicals like The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts

We were joined by a team from the University of Exeter headed by Professor Angelique Richardson outlining the range of resources for schools developed as part of the Hardy and Heritage project which support the teaching of 19th- and 20th-century non-fiction. PhD student, former secondary school teacher, and Hardy Society member, Stephanie Meek, led teachers through exercises to begin planning ways of using the resources in their own lesson plans and schemes of work, while Head of English at King Arthur’s School, Wincanton, and incoming PhD student, John Blackmore, related the importance of working with the archives of cultural institutions and university researchers to new Ofsted demands for a knowledge-rich curriculum and the interweaving of cultural capital.

double steph

Stephanie Meek leading teachers through tasks

An important factor Steph highlighted was that as a teacher she didn’t know that universities wanted to work with schoolteachers, and I had the same experience. When universities reach out to schools it is rarely to the individual English teacher. If you’re lucky, there is a page with a staff list with email addresses on a school website, so that you can direct your enquiry to the Head of English. Increasingly and understandably, there is often only a school office/reception email. As a plea to anyone in schools receiving invitations to work with a university: please forward them to all of the relevant staff – even if you can’t attend yourself, someone else might like to. It’s all too easy to ‘give up’ on working with schools as the reply rate is always low. However, that can – I hope – change, and those who do reply will always make it more than worth your while!

After lunch, Catherine Charlwood introduced the Diseases of Modern Life GCSE resources, explaining the thinking behind their creation, and how they might support learning in the classroom. Then teachers had to get hands-on, attempting a sample exam question themselves in relation to a source using extracts from art critic John Ruskin’s letters:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 40 to 50.

How does the writer use language to describe  the experience of being on a steam-boat?

[12 marks]

Do please feel free to play along at home using the online source! Be warned: the experience of your child’s new exam syllabus may inspire a worrying respect for your teenager…

In a session called ‘Thomas Hardy and the Diseases of Modern Life’, we put passages from Hardy’s output alongside the GCSE resources the project has created, as well as providing teachers with some C20th or C21st articles as possible points of comparison. On the theme of ‘The health of desk-bound city-workers’, teachers looked at the ‘Preservation of Health’ resource alongside Hardy’s poem ‘Coming up Oxford Street: Evening’ and the 1891 short story ‘On the Western Circuit’; while the satirical ‘The Health of the Labourer’ resource from Punch was juxtaposed with Hardy’s 1883 essay ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer‘.

Teachers were generous in their feedback and also gave us useful pointers for where we might take such educational outreach work next. For instance, one teacher noted that “Resources to aid with teaching them eg. Syntax and sentences structures that are characteristic of C19th prose would be highly beneficial to us.” We took on board the idea of sentence structure and made that a key feature we kept returning to in our student day. 86% of participants reported an increase in confidence for teaching C19th non-fiction as a result of the workshop, and a range of quotations from their feedback show how valuable it is not just to work with teachers (HE to school), but to bring teachers into contact with each other (school to school):

“It was wonderful to engage with colleagues in a discussion in each section of how fiction and non-fiction are inextricably linked. Many thanks for a brilliant day. ”

“Some useful links across fiction/non-fiction made, especially regarding how people read prose (journals, magazines, etc. – and the crossover between the two. Will definitely be using all of the resources provided 🙂 ”

“As a non-teacher this day has been so insightful to the curriculum and the resources will be a great tool for inspiration for creating learning sessions. ” (from a National Trust Learning Manager)

“This project was an important part of the Hardy Society’s outreach to schools in 2019,” said Andrew Hewitt, Student Representative for the Thomas Hardy Society. “Our outreach programme includes poetry workshops and writing competitions and more. Our next project involves working with teachers to develop a ‘Wessex’ scheme of work to support the teaching of Hardy in his time and place, and we would love to hear from anyone who’d like to be involved.”


With students…

On 7th May 2019, we followed this with a workshop for Year 10 students, called ‘Writing about Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century’, again held in the beautiful Learning Room of the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Central Dorchester. Students from the The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester were joined by peers from Holyrood Academy, Somerset, to exchange ideas and enlarge their thinking. Before the day started in earnest, we played a cracking round of Mind-Boggling Medical History, where some students got to flex their ‘Medicine Through Time’ GCSE History muscles, and others applied critical reasoning to the (seemingly) fantastical statements. Please download the cards from the website to play in your own schools, or homes!

The first session, led by Andrew Hewitt, took students through a series of passages and poems from Hardy on the theme of nature and well-being. Students were encouraged to think critically about what we mean when we say ‘nature’ and to attend to the text at the level of the line or sentence, to prepare the AO2 skills we’d be bolstering throughout the day. All students were given a booklet of extracts to keep them thinking and possibly writing about Hardy, nature and well-being long after the workshop. That said, there was already impressive student knowledge of The Woodlanders in evidence!

andrew nature

Andrew Hewitt leading the Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy session

Catherine Charlwood then led students through notions of illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine, using foundational quotations from the Diseases of Modern Life project, as well as sample GCSE resources. For instance, students read either the first or second half of an extract from Benjamin Ward Richardson’s 1872 Diseases of Modern Life about train travel, and explained to their peers what Ward Richardson’s opinion of trains was and – crucially – how they knew. This encouraged students to teach each other, and to show how they were coming to their analytical decisions.


Student assumptions/initial reactions to the idea of “scientific and medical writing”

After lunch, Karin Koehler looked at fiction versus non-fiction, this time eliciting Year 10 responses to the separate categories of fiction and non-fiction. Using examples from Hardy’s own writing practice, she showed students how Hardy used non-fiction sources as inspiration for his novels and stories and – by having them analyse a fiction passage first – showed students how the same language devices and careful vocabulary choices are at work in both fiction and non-fiction.

fiction post its

Post Its detailing student expectations of fiction texts and – separately – non-fiction texts.

KK teaching

Dr Karin Koehler leading students through fiction and non-fiction texts


We were very fortunate to be joined by the Thomas Hardy Society’s Academic Director, published novelist and poet Dr Faysal Mikdadi, who led a creative writing session. Using two brief extracts from Darwin on the humble origins of human creatures and Hardy’s poem ‘An August Midnight’, Dr Mikdadi used a tried and tested way of engaging learners with poetry. He shared the very short prose pieces and the poem with them, asked simple factual questions, extended the questions to a search for surface meaning, elicited deeper meanings from the students and, finally, suggested that they could write their own poem either emulating Hardy’s, reacting to his poem or writing anything inspired by him or by Darwin. As the students composed their poems, Dr Mikdadi, and other adults present, engaged with any who needed support, encouraged those who were reluctant and primed three potential readers to prepare to read their poem. They did so really well. Once the poems were read, students gave positive responses and critical friend suggestions on ways forward.


Dr Faysal Mikdadi leading the creative writing workshop

In our final session, students and teachers collaborated on answering an AQA exam-style question 3 for Paper 2 (the 12 mark ‘How does the writer use language to…?’ analysis question). While everyone had the same text, describing medical students watching an operation, half the room focused on one section of the text, and half the following section. This way, when we fed back, students got to annotate further and see how peers had approached the task. The questions are below if you would like to replicate this with your own students:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 17 to 27

How does the writer use language to describe the preparations for the operation?

[12 marks]


03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 28 to 39

How does the writer use language to describe the operation?

[12 marks]


Students approached this task with confidence, and – with reference to the mark scheme on the PowerPoint throughout – upped the ante in their written responses. Giving feedback on the experience of the whole day, we were delighted to read students note such things as

“It has given me the idea that English is more than just analysing language”

“I wanted to take English Literature for A-level and this has given me more inspiration to do so.”

“It’s made me more open to explore historic events through English texts rather than through history textbooks while at school.”

“It has made me think of multiple ways to answer GCSE questions”

Survey data further revealed that 87% were now more interested in the Victorians; 87% more interested in English; 69% more interested in books and literature; 94% more interested in the history of medicine; and 69% more interested in the relationship between literature and science. Never have I enjoyed compiling survey data more!

All of the facilitators agreed that we’d been fortunate to work with such an impressive group of young people, and we’re very grateful to both the Thomas Hardye School and Holyrood Academy for participating and for their work in helping students attend. Thanks must also go to the staff of Shire Hall who provided a fantastic service on both occasions, and who come highly recommended as a venue. Be sure to keep an eye on the Thomas Hardy Society website for future educational outreach initiatives and events: the above hopefully shows quite how important such work with schools is, as well as what fun it can be for all concerned!



Post-seminar delighted/relieved collaborators. L-R: Dr Catherine Charlwood, Dr Karin Koehler, and Andrew Hewitt. All three are proud members of The Thomas Hardy Society.

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…

Pills for Our Ills: Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People

This is a guest post by Alice Tsay, a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Alice’s dissertation, “Matters of Taste: Digesting Difference in Victorian and Edwardian Culture” examines the rhetorical functions of food and ingestion within discourses of difference during the long nineteenth century.

The folk singer Pete Seeger tells a story about a girl who sickens and is prescribed Dr. Johnson’s Pink Pills for Pale People by the doctor. After her father makes up a song for her on the phone, the ditty gets repeated through the telephone wires until proper communications are drowned out. Eventually, the government cuts down the telephone poles and wires, throwing them overboard far from shore. In the watery depths, however, the wires continue to resonate with the sounds of the song:

Pink pills for pale people,

Pink pills for pale people.

Pink pills, pink pills…

While fanciful, Seeger’s story takes its inspiration from an actual patent medicine called Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Though he turns it into a fable about the white noise of commercialism in modern society, the tale also suggests the ubiquity and pervasiveness of the product to which it alludes.

L0058211 Dr Williams' 'Pink Pills', London, England, 1850-1920 Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images Dr William’s ‘Pink Pills’ were advertised as an iron rich tonic for the blood and nerves to treat anaemia, clinical depression, poor appetite and lack of energy. The tablets were originally advertised as “Pink Pills for Pale People”. Users of the product claimed the pills could even cure paralysis.  The patent for the pills was bought by an American politician, Senator George T Fulford (1852-1905) in 1890. Fulford made the product an international success. maker: G T Fulford and Company Limited, maker: Dr Williams Medicine Company Place made: London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom made: 1850-1920 Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Dr Williams’ ‘Pink Pills’, London, England, 1850-1920
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

First formulated in Canada in 1886, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People quickly made their way across the world, appearing in advertisements in dozens of countries by the early 20th century. These advertisements claimed that the pills would cure nearly any ailment, including eczema, rickets, and paralysis. Unsurprisingly, the company’s outsized claims drew complaints from both consumers and professional associations. By the 1910s, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People had gained a reputation in North America and Great Britain as the archetypal quack cure, part of a gullible past with no place in modern medical practice.

In China, however, these pills met with a slightly different fate. Marketed in English language publications in Shanghai from the early 1900s onward, Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills also appeared in Chinese-language publications from the 1910s through the early 1940s. In the mid-1920s, these Chinese advertisements went from suggesting that the product could be procured ‘wherever Western medicines were sold’ to declaring that it would be available ‘at all pharmacies’, the latter suggesting much greater social saturation. By 1941, adverts sent customers directly to the National Department of Health (guomin zhengfu weisheng shu), a governmental entity whose focus on establishing public sanitation standards has been seen as a main component of developing modernity in Shanghai.

Though this trajectory of growing legitimacy seems surprising, several features of these pills would have eased their integration into the lives of Chinese consumers. While new Western imports such as deodorant, powdered milk, and oatmeal started out as totally unfamiliar products, the wan or pill form of medication in China dates back several centuries, as medicinal powders formed into a wax-covered ball. Moreover, as a purported cure-all, the pills were a good fit for the symptom- rather than disease-based approach central to traditional Chinese medicine. Marketers further catered to the audience by translating ‘Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People’ into weilianshi dayisheng hongse buwan in Chinese, or ‘Doctor Weilianshi Red Supplement Pills’. With alliteration abandoned, the pink pills became red (though merely in name), taking on a color with greater cultural resonance and existing precedence in traditional medicinal packaging.

The story of Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People in Shanghai is an accumulation of paradoxes, both in comparison to its Western origins and in the context of China itself. To start with, it was a foreign product that was familiarized through the form of traditional Chinese medicine. Beyond that, it was one that increased in popularity in the wake of the New Culture and May Fourth Movements of the 1910s and 1920s, which reacted against both traditional Chinese culture and what was seen as excessive imperialist influence. These seeming contradictions reveal not only the tangled processes of history at a local level, but also the hybrid cultural pathways that contributed to the formation of global modernity.


Bergère, Marie-Claire. Shanghai: China’s Gateway to Modernity. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Print.

“Cool Things—Pink Pills for Pale People.” Kansas Historical Society. December 2014. Web. 28 November 2016.

Go, Simon. Hong Kong Apothecary: A Visual History of Chinese Medicine Packaging. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. Print.

Illustrated London News. Retrieved from The Illustrated London News Historical Archive: 1842-2003. London, England: Gale Cengage Learning. Web. 28 November 2016.

Liang You Hua Bao [The Young Companion]. Shanghai: Shanghai Shu Dian, 1986-1989. Print.

Seeger, Pete and Paul Dubois Jacobs. “Pink Pills for Pale People.” Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book. San Diego; New York; London: Harcourt, Inc., 2000. Print.

Alice Tsay

‘Drooping with the Century’: Fatigue and the Fin de Siècle

This is a guest post by Steffan Blayney, a PhD student in history at Birkbeck, University of London researhcing fatigue, the science of work, and the working body in Britain c.1870-1939. He is also one of the organisers of History Acts.

In the prologue to his 1892 short story, ‘Number Twenty’, the English satirist Henry Duff Traill personifies the nineteenth century as an exhausted, dying old man. Opening at 11.30p.m. on the 31st December 1900, Traill’s story finds Old Seekleham – an ungainly pun on the Latin saeculum (century) – with just half an hour to live.  Far from mourning his impending death, however, Seekleham greets it with a weary resignation, even relief:

“It was not that he had attained to a greater age than his ancestors …; it was that his life, as measured by exciting and consequently fatiguing experiences, had already far exceeded most of theirs”.

As he reaches his final minutes, our dying century is joined at his bedside by a choir of Decadents, who sing ‘in praise of exhaustion, and disillusion, and failure, and emptiness, and weariness’. Finally, as the clock strikes midnight, they all join in an ‘Ode to the Spirit of Decadence’. By the time it is over, however, Seekleham has already succumbed to his exhaustion, disappearing to make way for the new-born Twentieth Century.[1]

Traill, who fittingly died himself in 1900, was not alone in associating the end of the nineteenth century with exhaustion. Across a diversity of texts, metaphors of fatigue were used to signify political decline, social regression, and cultural deterioration. In an influential article of 1871, the historian James Froude painted a picture of an England overcome by ‘lethargy’, the political and racial ‘vigor’ of its people teetering on the brink of ‘exhaustion’.[2] By the end of the century, in the words of Conservative politician Joseph Chamberlain, the nation had become a ‘Weary Titan’, overburdened by its vast colonial possessions and struggling to match the energy and dynamism of its international rivals.[3] In British culture too, the critic John Addington Symonds diagnosed a pervasive ‘world-fatigue [which has] penetrated deep into our spirit.’[4] Fatigue took its place alongside those other fin-de-siècle (fin-de-Seekleham) signifiers – decline, degeneration and decadence – with which historians of late-nineteenth century Britain are familiar.

dorian-gray-f60078-27-3Majeska illustration (1930) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): “Fin de siècle,” murmured Lord Henry. “Fin du globe,” answered his hostess. “I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian, with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment.” “Ah, my dear,” cried Lady Narborough, putting on her gloves, “don’t tell me that you have exhausted Life. When a man says that one knows that Life has exhausted him.” (The British Library)

Medical writers, as the physician Clifford Allbutt observed in 1895, were likewise concerned that the British population was ‘drooping with the century’; that the energies of the population were being depleted as a result of the vast and rapid social and technological changes that had characterised the nineteenth century.[5] The spread of industrialisation, urbanisation, education, and new technologies such as the railway and the telegraph had increased the pace and intensity of modern life to such a degree that the body was unable to withstand its constant pressures and demands.

Practically absent from medical or scientific discourse before the 1870s, the final decades of the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of attempts to define, describe, measure, and control physical and mental fatigue. By the end of the century, contemporaries were certain that they lived in an ‘age of fatigue’, with medical professionals concerned that their era would be remembered by posterity as ‘the Tired Age’.[6]

mcdougall-dotter-3The ‘McDougall dotter’. A device for measuring mental fatigue designed by English psychologist William McDougall in 1905. (Museum of the History of Science, Oxford)

Increasingly, distinctions were drawn between normal and pathological states of fatigue, or between ‘fatigue’ and ‘over-fatigue’ or exhaustion. While a certain amount of fatigue was the natural consequence of normal work, continued over-exertion put body and mind at risk of severe, or even permanent, debility. Behind every discussion of fatigue lay the entropic spectre of ‘total collapse’ or ‘irrecoverable degeneration’.[7]

For all its obvious anxieties, however, the fin-de-siècle discourse on fatigue was inherently equivocal. While fatigue expressed itself in individual bodily decline, it could also be read an expression of national progress. If fatigue was a disease of modern civilisation, then an epidemic of exhaustion was the best evidence possible of a civilised society. For many, the archetypal subject of fatigue was less modernity’s discontent than its agent: ‘the eminent lawyer, the physician in full practice, the minister, and the politician who aspires to be a minister … the literary workman, or the eager man of science’.[8] Moreover, authorities on the subject were keen to point out that pathological fatigue was a problem which afflicted only the most advanced societies, the superior races. If fatigue was a common metaphor for Britain’s decline, it could also be exploited as evidence of its social and cultural pre-eminence and imperial dominance; in a word, its modernity.

Late-Victorian doctors were thus faced with an uncomfortable paradox. On the one hand, fatigue represented a failure of the body to meet the demands of modern life, and yet, at the same time, its increasing incidence was the best possible evidence of a society’s supreme modernity. As Britain entered the twentieth century, the problem that would preoccupy both scientists and policy-makers was the following: how could the constraints on the powers of the body be reconciled with boundless social progress? Did fatigue represent a limit to modernity, or an obstacle which it was possible to overcome?

Steffan Blayney

[1] H. D. Traill, Number Twenty: Fables and Fantasies (London: Henry & Co., 1892), 1–13.

[2] James Anthony Froude, ‘England’s War’, Fraser’s Magazine 3, no. 14 (February 1871): 135, 144.

[3] Joseph Chamberlain (1902), quoted in Julian Amery, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, vol. 4 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1951), 421.

[4] Joseph Addington Symonds, ‘A Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry’, Fortnightly Review 45, no. 265 (January 1889): 60.

[5] T. Clifford Allbutt, ‘Nervous Diseases and Modern Life’, The Contemporary Review, 1866-1900 67 (February 1895): 210.

[6] Mona Caird, ‘The Evolution of Compassion’, Westminster Review, 145 (1896), 635–43 (p. 643); “A Physician”, ‘Fatigue’, Quiver, 1908, 1012–13 (p. 1012).

[7] Robert Farquharson, ‘On Overwork’, Lancet 107, no. 2731 (1 January 1876): 10; J. Mortimer Granville, Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease (London: J. &  A. Churchill, 1883), 11.

[8] W. R. Greg, ‘Life at High Pressure.’, The Contemporary Review 25 (December 1874): 629.

Worked to the Point of Madness

This is a guest post by Dr Amy Milne-Smith, Associate Professor of History at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada currently researching representations and understandings of men and madness, 1850-1914.

The Victorians respected hard work. The ability of a man to focus his attention, put his nose to the grindstone, and simply get the job done was not only lauded, it was expected. In fact, the doctrine of hard work became a moral imperative, spread with missionary fervour through the likes of Samuel Smiles. In his 1887 work, Life and Labour, Smiles defined a man by his relationship to work. “Every man worth calling a man should be willing and able to work.”

And yet co-existing with this mantra of hard work and manly pride were great fears of the potential costs of such devotion. Not only were there moral fears of becoming hard, or rapacious, or materialistic—there were also fears that overworking the brain could lead to a breakdown. Serious concerns about the fate of men’s brains due to the pressures of modern work and life led many to seek out pre-emptive solutions.

Victorian quack doctors had unparalleled abilities to prey on contemporary fears to sell miracle cures. The aptitude of medical charlatans to root out and exploit underlying anxieties makes them an incredibly rich resource, therefore, to uncover people’s fears. And clearly, the overworked man was a source of concern.


Advertisement featuring  a man wearing a cap with lightning bolts emanating from its center front representing the cap’s curative magnetic powers against nervous headaches and impaired eyesight, 1880.

In 1901 one such “doctor” named Rumler proclaimed in the fifteenth edition of his work (there are never first editions of such books) on the causes of neurasthenia. This is perhaps the best-known disease of the modern, urban, overworked professional. Neurasthenia threatened not only the individual, according to Rumler, but also the nation. As he explained:

…the State needs men, true men, energetic in body and soul. But what is produced instead is a lot of puny youths who are already worn-out old men; the real men are becoming few and far between, and this will go on as long as the real causes of bodily and mental misery and the decline of nations are not recovered.

A chief cause of this bodily and mental decay is too much “brain work.”

The dangers of overwork worried all manner of doctor from the charlatan to the legitimate. The much-discussed Victorian diagnosis of neurasthenia was, however, the less serious results of pushing oneself too far. There were fears that overwork could lead to complete madness. And these fears were not limited to the so-called experts. Everyday people felt the potential dangers of overwork as well.


E.F. Benson is best known as the author of the Dodo series and the ‘Mapp and Lucia’ novels. But he also came from a family gifted with talent and plagued by serious mental health issues. As a prolific writer, the shadow of overwork was never far from his mind or his family experience. Detailing life inside this incredibly talented family in his 1921 memoir Our Family Affairs, he outlines the cost of overwork. He strongly believed his brother Robert, an author and Roman Catholic priest, died from overwork. Another brother Stephen worked himself to madness at a young age and died in an institution.

benson-2Edward Benson, The Judgment Books, 1895

Thus when Benson described an artist tortured by his work, his memory, the sins of his past in The Judgment Books, the portrayal is tinged with heightened realism and immediacy. Faced with the suggestion that he do a sensible day of work the protagonist bellows “All good work is done in a sort of madness or somnambulism—I don’t know which. Everything worth doing is done by men possessed of demons.”

Such ideas resonated with a populace that already believed in the connections between madness and genius. There was a sneaking suspicion that perhaps madness was a necessary complement to genius, or an inevitable side effect. The spectre of absolute madness was a real concern for men of genius and hard work.


The potential of men’s overworking themselves to madness was terrifying. With the hope of a cure waning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the diagnosis of madness often meant the end of productive life. And without his work, or his ability to control his mind, a Victorian gentleman was hardly a man at all. As Janet Oppenheim notes in her classic text ‘Shattered Nerves’ the ability of men to control their emotions became increasingly paramount to their identities. The inherent irrationality of a madman thus made him either a brute or an effete. Work too little and risk being branded lazy and useless; work too much and risk descending into madness. The stresses of modern life posed some unwinnable scenarios.

Amy Milne-Smith

A Disease-Free World: The Hygienic Utopia

This is a guest post by Dr Manon Mathias, a Lecturer in French at the University of Aberdeen. Dr Mathias has published several book chapters and journal articles on the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the works of George Sand, and her monograph, Vision in the Novels of George Sand, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. She has also examined the relations between the novel and science, and recently published a journal article on Sand and Flaubert’s readings of Georges Cuvier’s geohistory in French Studies. She is now embarking on a new project examining the digestive system in nineteenth-century French medicine and culture.

Many take a gung-ho approach to hygiene today in the belief that a bit of dirt is good for us. Warnings of antimicrobial resistance seem to justify this position. But at the same time, poor hygiene looms large in health campaigns and adverts as the key agent in spreading colds and viruses. Food poisoning, mostly caused by unwashed hands, also allegedly costs the UK economy nearly £1.5bn a year. It was in the nineteenth century, however, that the fixation with hygiene and its links with disease first came into prominence.

Public hygiene was essential in the emergence of modern Western societies, and France and Britain were the leading nations in this field. It was also in France that the germ theory of disease was born with Pasteur’s work in bacteriology. The realisation that germs spread through human contact in particular led to an acute fear of dirt and an increased obsession with hygiene.

Hygiene in Science Fiction

begums-fortune©Images copyright Andrew Nash 2011

French and English novels from this period provide special insights into views on hygiene and disease, especially in science fiction visions of alternative societies. Leading popularisers of science, Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion, both wrote such novels in the 1880s. Begum’s Fortune (1880) by Verne features a model city of health and longevity created by French hygienist Dr Sarrasin. Despite Verne’s knowledge of the latest developments in disease and its links with hygiene, however, Bégum is more concerned with the implications for society.

Jules Verne

In Sarrasin’s ‘City of Wellbeing’, although illness is virtually eradicated, the focus on hygiene is relentless and the lifestyle repressive. The inhabitants’ psychological and emotional health goes unmentioned and at the peak crisis of the book, when the population faces extermination, they exhibit no ‘disorderly emotion’ such as fear or anger and are ‘in thrall’ to Sarrasin. In this germ-free city, the absence of dirt and disease entails the absence of passion, excitement, and independence of thought.

Camille Flammarion


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All Original Work ©1996-2011 by Bill Hillman and/or Contributing Authors/Owners

Flammarion’s Urania of 1889 goes yet further in its setting and take on hygiene. In this text, two Martians explain that life on earth is a ‘total failure’ due to our reliance on the body. Once the digestive system developed and we began eating other beings, we became base, monstrous and unclean. On Mars, by contrast, they feed themselves through breathing and produce no bodily dejections. But the release from the body comes at a price. The Martians are compared with electrical appliances and live without passion or sexual pleasure.

In both Verne and Flammarion’s texts, the ultimate dirty substance, excrement, is mentioned only to be denied. In Bégum, the ‘products of the sewers’ are immediately expelled and transported to the countryside. In Uranie, the lack of digestion makes excrement non-existent. Intimately bound up with this removal or absence is a rational rejection of disease and infection but also a more indirect rejection of passion, physicality and desire.

William Morris



These portrayals of hygienic utopias can be compared with William Morris’s vision of a twenty-first-century London free from filth, crime and disease. In contrast with Flammarion’s text and Verne’s Bégum, Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) offers an apparently anxiety-free view of excrement and there is a freedom and openness towards the body in this novel where desire is a central and valued force in society.

Public Health

Morris’s less troubled approach to the body might be explained by the more advanced state of public health reform in Britain. The prohibition of cesspits and linking of homes with sewers, for example, had been achieved in London by the late 1840s whereas this did not happen in France until the early twentieth century. Britain also passed its first Public Health Act in 1848 but France had to wait until 1902.

health-act-3Public Health Act of 1848 (

Excrement: residue of the past?

However, excrement is mentioned in Morris’s novel to refer back to nineteenth-century society as a place of dirt and depravity, and America is described as ‘a stinking dung heap’. Both allusions use human waste to denigrate societies distanced from the speaker in space or time. Many theorists of disgust interpret faeces as a hostile residue of the past and our revulsion towards the substance as a fear of our own death. Such interpretations are especially relevant to News from Nowhere where people know nothing of the past and are horrified by references to social history. This erasure of the past is, I would suggest, related to the negative understanding of the dung heap, and the novel creates a more complex vision of dirt and disease than at first it seems.

Although News from Nowhere offers a more positive approach to the body than Bégum or Uranie and even seems to valorise waste (with the ‘dustman’, for example, highly valued in society), the denial of the past and use of excremental imagery to vilify others reveals underlying anxieties towards the body and its ephemerality.

Scholars of history and sociology point to increasing disgust levels as constitutive of the modern Western subject. But the novels examined here do not present the phenomenon in entirely non-problematic terms. The portrayals of utopian hygienic societies reveal instead the fluctuating and contradictory nature of our modern understanding of filth, disease, and attitudes towards the human body.

Manon Mathias

Victorian Precocity as a Modern Complaint

This is a guest post by Mallory R. Cohn, a doctoral candidate in English Literature and Victorian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Mallory is a former managing editor of the journal Victorian Studies. Her dissertation, “Precocious: A Cultural History,” examines Victorian precocity and prodigiousness as both aesthetic fascinations and threatening pathologies across literary, religious, medical, pedagogic, and eugenic texts.

Parenting an “exceptional” child has arguably become something of a twenty-first-century status symbol. In her 2006 book Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child, Alissa Quart warns of the dangers of the contemporary, widespread practice of “prodigy-mongering,” or obsessively trying to nurture or create giftedness in children at the expense of non-productive, playful, and spontaneous childhood. Quart claims, in passing, that precocious children were idealized in the Victorian period, wanting to prevent us from repeating history, but I wonder if she knows how “Victorian” her project is. Her title’s reference to “hothouse kids” makes use of a trope that was ubiquitous in the nineteenth century. As Sally Shuttleworth has noted in The Mind of the Child, “The folk saying ‘Early ripe, early rotten’ was frequently invoked” to describe precocious children, “and literary texts drew inventively on the notion of the overblown flower” (145). In Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son (1848), for example, Dickens prefigures Quart’s title by portraying the overworked classmates of the precocious Paul Dombey as hothouse flowers: “all the boys blew before their time” (162), and Paul’s death is only the school’s worst casualty.

In fact, mid-Victorians consistently correlated premature knowledge or ability with death. The novelist Dinah Mulock Craik’s  essay “A Child’s Life: Sixty Years Ago” was written about an old book she happened to stumble upon entitled A Father’s Memoirs of His Child, published in 1806 by Benjamin Heath Malkin. Malkin was the bereaved father of a highly intelligent son, Thomas, who before his death at six mastered a good deal of Greek, Latin, and mathematics. Craik was not convinced that the given cause of death—a stomach disorder—was accurate: “In spite of Mr. Malkin’s disavowals, we suspect the already too precocious brain had been overstimulated. . . . Far better, a thousand times, to have thrown English and Greek books together on the back of the fire, and helped, encouraged, nay, even forced, the child to be only a child—that in Nature’s slow but sure development he might become successively a boy and a man” (47, my emphasis). Despite Craik’s advocacy on behalf of the “natural,” it is really slowness that she preaches, an enforced re-pacing of childhood’s temporality that enables it to resist modernizing haste or early professionalization.

malkin-3Image of Thomas Malkin, engraving by William Blake

Precociousness children weren’t “new” in the nineteenth century: exceptional childhood has likely always existed. But the Victorians did transmute it into a problem and a pathology, one the psychologist James Crichton-Browne termed “pernicious precocity” and connected to “the practice of commencing artificial education too soon, . . .  to which the circumstances of the age are an ever-strengthening incentive” (344-45). Craik’s armchair diagnosis of Thomas Malkin with “water on the brain” illustrates the way that an abstract difference in cognitive processing—namely, precocity—can be pathologized by pairing it with an embodied, material condition, that of hydrocephalus. The two are mutually reinforcing, and framed as both congenital doom—the “already-too-precocious brain”—and as contingent, environmental violence simultaneously. Thomas’s inborn excess of intellect, by some mysterious intermediate process involving Greek and math, generates the water that drowns him. Craik’s belief, common in the period, in “the intimate connection between mind and body, physical and mental soundness” (58), represents a scarcity model wherein the waxing of intellectual power and functional competence either results in the waning of physical power or occurs as a consequence of bodily deprivation or disease. Craik, well over a century before Quart’s Hothouse Kids, has her own anti-child-gardening project, urging parents to cease “lopping them and propping them, training them after some particular form, forgetting that every human being, like every tree, has a growth of its own” (52). And while Quart does not use an explicitly biological model of precocity, or implicate it directly in early deaths, her goal does seem to be to re-pathologize modern precocity along nineteenth-century lines: to render it a mode of being that strikes adults as dangerous rather than desirable.

I question, however, whether all anti-precocity advocates are motivated by altruism. While Craik ostensibly writes her essay out of pity for Thomas’s untimely death and to excoriate his father for allegedly causing it, one detects an unmistakable throughline of distaste for the “priggish,” conceited, unchildlike boy she has decided to memorialize: “when we reflect what very unpleasant people . . . [Thomas and another deceased precocious child] might possibly have become, we think almost with satisfaction of the two little graves” (51). Craik’s concern for “poor Thomas” cannot quite hide the affective strength of her dislike of his unusualness: his refusal to perform childhood naturally. Precociousness is a complaint that induces complaining, a nuisance in every sense. We sense a relief in Craik’s essay, even sixty years on, that Thomas was culled from the social fabric. Here, the weakness that attends abnormality allows for a Darwinian cleansing: the precocious are unfit to survive.


Craik, Dinah Maria Mulock. “A Child’s Life: Sixty Years Ago.” The Unkind Word, and Other Stories. Freeport, N.Y: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. Short Story Index Reprint Series.

Crichton-Browne, James. “Education and the Nervous System.” The Book of Health. Ed. Malcolm Morris. London: Cassell, 1883.

Dickens, Charles. Dombey and Son. London: Penguin, 2002.

Malkin, Benjamin Heath. A Father’s Memoirs of His Child. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806.

Quart, Alissa. Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Shuttleworth, Sally. The Mind of the Child: Child Development in Literature, Science and Medicine, 1840-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Mallory R. Cohn

Pathology of Progress: Cancer in Nineteenth-Century Britain

This is a guest post by Agnes Arnold-Forster, a third-year PhD candidate in the History Department at King’s College London. Agnes’s research, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, looks at cancer in Britain, from 1792 to 1914. She is an editor of the history of sexuality blog Notches.

L0069830 Cancer. From 7th to 2nd place among the big killers... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A red arrow on a graph pointing upwards through a human body, representing the increase in cancer in the USA. Colour lithograph after Fellnagel, 1941. 1941 By: United States. Public Health Service. and FellnagelPublished: [1941] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

L0069830 Cancer. From 7th to 2nd place among the big killers…
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Woods Hutchinson (1862-1930) was an English physician who trained as a doctor in the United States. As well as a successful pathologist, clinician, and public health practitioner, Hutchinson was a prolific writer, covering evolution, comparative pathology, exercise, civilization, and war in his wide-ranging publications. In 1899, the Contemporary Review published an article by him, thick with metaphorical allusions and polemic, entitled ‘The Cancer Problem: Or, Treason in the Republic of the Body.’ Here, Hutchinson condensed to thirteen pages the diverse and fraught anxieties that attended cancer in late-nineteenth-century Britain.

The collection of vital statistics in Britain from the 1840s onwards suggested to troubled observers that cancer’s incidence was increasing exponentially. This perceived ‘cancer epidemic’ captured the medical and lay imagination, and promoted fierce debate in the pages of medical journals, general interest publications, and in parliament. Hutchinson was thus not alone in lamenting its increase ‘at such an appalling rate.’ He posed cancer as ‘the riddle of the Sphinx for the twentieth century’, and positioned the disease as an unintended consequence of civilisation and progress.

Roy Porter has called cancer ‘the modern disease par excellence’ and Siddhartha Mukherjee has described it as ‘the quintessential product of modernity’, and we tend to think of cancer as closely tied to the twentieth century, and its increase as a product of recent changes in ways of living. Thus, cancer is mostly absent from histories of the nineteenth century. However, as Woods Hutchinson demonstrates, people were expressing concerns about cancer and modernity in the nineteenth century, and saw it as a product of changes to Victorian lifestyles and environments.

The language of the text is rich in metaphor and analogy, and Hutchinson made use of cancer to explore contemporary social and political anxieties. The late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries were awash with debates over national decline and degeneration, and commenters such as Gustave Le Bon were particularly apprehensive about the threat of social disorder and unrest in the context of economic depression and the expanding franchise. Hutchinson interpreted cancer in these terms, calling it ‘a rebellion of the cells’, or ‘an imperium in imperio’.  He was explicit about the connections between cancer’s threat to the individual body, and the dangers posed by social unrest to the national population: ‘In the body-republic, where we have come to regard harmony and loyalty as the almost invariable rule, we suddenly find ourselves confronted by anarchy and revolt.’ In general, Hutchinson drew metaphorical links between one body, and the collective bodies of the country: he referred to the ‘blood- and lymph-road’, called the ‘central organs’ Rome, and described cancer as a ‘ruthless march upon the body-fortresses.’

Cancer, ‘the deadliest and most uncontrollable of known diseases’, was metaphorically tied to the decline of the late-nineteenth-century nation. An increase in cancer incidence was taken as evidence of the waning power and significance of Britain and its empire in the fin-de-siecle. Hutchinson described cancer as ‘emphatically a disease of senility, of age.’ If it was a malady that peculiarly affected those in the twilight of their years, it was also a disease that manifested national and imperial decline. Cancer was understood to affect organs that had begun to ‘atrophy’ (breasts after the menopause, for example), and to flourish in countries that were diminished in influence.

Cancer was a disease tied to the late stages of civilisation. It was produced by progress, and societies that were understood as less developed, or less civilised, were thought to be far less vulnerable, even immune, from cancer. Hutchinson argued that cancer was a disease that peculiarly affected white races. He suggested that the frequency of cancer ‘in the negro’ was ‘less than half the white race in the United States’, and claimed almost complete absences from ‘savage and barbarous races generally.’ This hierarchy of cancer-susceptibility was only further inscribed by the links he drew between civilised peoples and domesticated animals, and between wild animals and ‘wild’ peoples. Using evidence from London Zoo, he suggested that cancer in wild animals was ‘practically unknown.’

Cancer was, therefore, a disease of late-nineteenth-century modernity. It was seen as both a product of social and biological progress, and a consequence of national and imperial decline. The nation-state mirrored the processes of the natural body. It grew, advanced, and improved, before beginning an inevitable and irreversible decline, only for life to be brought to a close through a catastrophic rebellion of cells, or rather population. This trajectory was only available to those nations/individuals who achieved both longevity and modernity. Thus, societies and communities that were situated on lower rungs of the Victorian racial hierarchy were vulnerable to neither cancer nor collapse. As Hutchinson suggested, ‘Cancer is the price paid for longer life.’ High cancer incidence was, therefore, both an indicator of civilisation, and the mechanism by which that civilisation would fall apart.

Agnes Arnold-Forster

Victims of Civilization: The Stammerer’s Identity in Victorian Britain

This is a guest post by Dr Josephine Hoegaerts, a Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and the author of  Masculinity and Nationhood, 1830-1910. Constructions of Identity and Citizenship in Belgium. Josephine runs a blog a Singing in the Archives and is currently writing a monograph on the changing social ascriptions to the speaking and singing voice in Western Europe, tentatively entitled Speakers, Stammerers and Singers. A Social History of the Modern European Voice.


The ‘lecture room’ at Tarrangower.  (W.J. Ketley, Stammering: The Beasley Treatment, Birmingham: Hudson and son, 1900.)

Around the turn of the 20th century, Tarrangower, an ‘Establishment for the cure of stammering and all defects of speech’ was founded on the outskirts of London. Its director, William Ketley, ran the establishment with his wife and daughters following the principles of a stammering treatment set out by his father in law, Benjamin Beasley. It was advertised as a wholesome family business, where ‘resident and non-resident pupils’ alike could expect to be cured of their embarrassing impediments. Tarrangower, as it was depicted in Ketley’s book-length account of ‘The Beasley Method’ was a picture of late-Victorian refinement and domesticity. Its airy lecture-room offered a view over the wide grounds and even boasted a gramophone, a sure sign of the establishment’s modern aspirations and innovative approach to pedagogy, therapy and entertainment. In fact, Tarrangower and the Ketley-Beasley family seemed to present themselves as the advocates of an explicitly modern and new understanding of stammering and the stammerer’s identity. In the introduction to Stammering: The Beasley Treatment (1900), Ketley characterized the stammerer – his potential client or pupil – as a strong master of his own fate.

“Among all men in the world there are none as a class who are better equipped in mental abilities, in versatility, in depth of penetration, in nervous force, than the stammerer.”

The latter part of that sentence, especially, signaled a departure from earlier interpretations of stammering. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the impediment had been understood as a nervous disease, comparable to other afflictions that entailed involuntary movement, like chorea or St Vitus’s Dance. Stammering was thus essentially heard as speech interrupted by the twitches and contractions of an unruly tongue, caused by an inability to control one’s own body due to some weakness of the nerves (or indeed of character, as some authors seemed to suggest). The affinity between stammering and nervous disease was a puzzling one for nineteenth-century scientists and therapists. Nervous afflictions were generally understood to be a ‘feminine’ pathology, but the statistics that were compiled on stammering throughout the century showed that women were far less likely to stammer than men. Experts disagreed on the exact percentages (some claiming that women did not stammer at all, while others thought up to one third of stammerers were female), but they were unanimously stumped by this anomaly in nervous pathology. Explanations were sought, rather unsuccessfully, in women’s anatomy (their smaller larynxes would make speech easier), and in their loquaciousness (giving them more practice in developing fluent speech).

It was only toward the end of the century that the paradox of the male stammerer was resolved. In the 1870s, a new type of expert emerged in the field of speech pathology. After a long period of territorial conflicts between physicians (often depicted as heartless butchers, overly keen to cut into stammerers’ vocal organs) and therapists (often ridiculed for their lack of medical expertise and denounced as quacks), a happy medium was found between medical and educational approaches to speech impediments. Benjamin Beasly was one voice among a new generation of experts who explicitly combined the results of scientific medical research and educational practice in their work. Considering the stammerer neither as a patient to be observed and cured, nor as a nervous weakling unable to control his tongue, Beasley proposed a series of exercises that explicitly mobilized the self-discipline he expected his ‘pupils’ to have. His main claim to expertise on the subject was his own experience of stammering. According to his Reminiscences, Beasley had been an inveterate stammerer who had fruitlessly tried out all cures until he finally devised his own method to obtain fluent speech.


“My own personal experience unquestionably proves to me how fearfully one may be afflicted with the impediment without having reason to attribute it to nervousness. As a child I was very healthy and robust, and at the age of five or six years was remarkable for my fluency of speech and perfect articulation.” (Benjamin Beasley, Stammering: Its Treatment, London: Waterlow and Sons, 1888).

Proudly claiming an identity as a stammerer (albeit a ‘cured’ one), Beasley redefined the socio-cultural understanding of stammering, and solved the paradox of the stammerer’s gender. That especially white middle-class men were prone to stutter, he surmised, was not a result of their nervous weakness, but rather that of their great intelligence and of the demands modern life made of the strongest, most civilized members of society. Those free of responsibilities connected to business and politics (and the need for fluent speech these entailed) were less likely to stammer. And therefore children, women and ‘savages’ were generally blessed with uninterrupted speech patterns. His son-in-law reiterated the reasoning in his advertisement for the Beasley method, devoting a whole chapter to the observation that stammering was a ‘product of civilization.’

“The child of the savage is brought up like a healthy little animal, [… ] knowing nothing whatever of the repressions which count so much in the decencies and refinements of conduct among civilised peoples. […] How different, when compared with this, is the every-day training of the child brought up in a civilised environment. From the very first day on which he can by word of mouth make his wants known he is taught to whisper of the most intimate things, to disguise his real instincts[…]. And so his animal spirits and vitality being suppressed, kept in check, forced back upon him, neurotic conditions are engendered. He learns to be ashamed of his natural instincts; […], becomes neurotic and nervous; hesitates in making his wants known, blushes when asking favours, and finally, where the temperament is especially highly strung, and the predisposing causes exist, becomes a stammerer – a victim of civilisation.”

Was the robust, self-made male stammerer, so eminently capable of overcoming his own impediments neurotic and nervous after all, then? Perhaps, but only – according to Beasley and Ketley, because his ‘nervous force’ was so great and his intellect so exceptional.

Josephine Hoegaerts