Monday Series: A Disease with no Remedy III

In his A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs (1722), Edward Barry describes the influence of environmental stimuli upon an inherited malady such as consumption: “This constitution to some is natural and hereditary; but in many others be acquired, by the intemperate use of a hot, aromatic, saline, or animal Diet, or by previous Disorders, which relax the vessels, and deprive the Blood of the oily and balsamic parts, and render its salts too active and volatile.”[1] Like many other physicians of his time, Barry acknowledged “that phthisis, which is hereditary, and proceeds from a Constitution inclined to that Distemper, is most commonly fatal.”[2] Georgian medicine advocated a patient history that began before birth, centering on an individual whose physical and moral health was dependent upon hereditary qualities.[3] The relationship between the parent’s constitution and their offspring was an obvious empirical fact, though any constitutional defects—including hereditary dispositions to disease (diathesis)—were believed to be inherited along with phenotypical characters. “Still a period when both learned physicians and the common man saw disease as the sum of one’s transactions with the environment,”[4] physicians favoured explanations supporting hereditary disposition, particularly for chronic diseases with complex etiology as phthisis, scrofula, or gout. While the etiology of other diseases could also be attributed to heredity, historian Elizabeth Lomax points out that hereditary disposition played a larger part in the etiology of consumption, while a disease like scrofula seemed “to be precipitated by conditions associated with poverty,…tuberculosis attacked the rich and poor alike, leaving heredity as a prime suspect in causality.”[5] So familiar was the hereditary transmission of maladies that not until the 1840s were the first systematic attempts made to evaluate the hereditarian thesis in Britain.[6]

However, in the opinion of most Georgian physicians, most maladies identified as heritable were without remedy. Recognizing the importance of reassuring the patient, Benjamin Marten wrote, “no greater Harm can be well done to Consumptive Persons, than for People to tell them they are incurable.”[7] It is plausible that the concept of hereditary predisposition was constructed as an approach against the hopelessness of incurability. Historian J.C. Waller states that “instead of building a theory of hereditary disease on the basis of raw statistical data, doctors had constructed a concept—predisposition—for which there as scant evidence, and then used it to make it appear that the failure of children to inherit their parent’s maladies was exactly what a rational theory of heredity would predict.”[8] Emphasizing on this point, Waller asserts that the concept of hereditary disease arose as a by-product of a link between the notion of incurable disease and the ancient concept of unchanging individual constitution.[9] He further explicates that “this conceptual structure was formed because of a desire on the part of the medical profession to rationalize, and to some extent to excuse, its inability to treat a range of persistent maladies.”[10] In other words, the inherited malady is a spin-off of construction of the category of constitutional malady familiar in the Hippocratic-Galenic theory of medicine. For Waller, despite the fact that from the late eighteenth century, “the concept of hereditary disease diathesis was virtually ubiquitous in discussions of the origins of chronic illness,”[11] this does not explain why “the concept of heredity was so routinely applied to the sorts of medical conditions that most of the profession utterly despaired of curing.”[12] Physicians generally recognized a conceptual association between heredity and incurability and if Waller is correct in his objection, why did these physicians readily accept hereditary illness and devise cures though they faced evidential and theoretical difficulties with the concept?

Part of the answer is obvious. As historian Charles Rosenberg explains, “for the physician to have thrown up his hands, to have confessed ignorance and impotence would have been a real failure of commitment.”[13] Nevertheless, for the rational physician who could not single out the determinant factor for an inherited phthisis, would it not have been beneficial to simple remove the hereditary taint out of his diagnosis? Why was a hereditary explanation so necessary? I believe in part, the hereditary theory of phthisis was a theory of convenience. Not only could the hereditary theory explain away any ignorance the physician had about disease patterns as Waller argues, but it could also account for patterns of moral and social fallings in society, particularly as the concept of hereditary predisposition encouraged patients to overcome their diathestic limitations by implementing personal responsibility through individual lifestyle. In short, hereditary predisposition served its purpose as an ideology, for it “served effectively in helping dramatize the need for temperance for moderation in diet and sexual relations.”[14]

A hereditary predisposition of phthisis made sense of an otherwise inexplicable distribution of disease. It explained why a husband and wife slept together on the same bed and only one succumbed to the wasting malady. It also provided an acceptable rationale for treatment management in a time when infection was highly regarded as untreatable.[15] As a socially constructed disease, consumption was also a fundamentally destructive social force, with factors such as professional interests, ideologies, and socio-political pressures all playing a role. Rosenberg has argued that while the formal context of scientific knowledge of heredity remained largely unchanged between 1800 and 1900, the social applications of heredity has shifted markedly in scope and emphasis.[16] “It is an intellectual evolution,” Rosenberg writes, “which illustrates with remarkable clarity the way in which ideas putatively scientific can be shaped by the need of society to rationalize, to understand, to find plausible sanctions for social action.”[17] Social attitudes become relevant when they are sanctioned by the scientific doctrines advocating them.


[1] Barry, A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs, 222, author’s emphasis.

[2] Barry, A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs, 245. A constitution is generally defined as a “view of the body as an organized structure, acting as a whole, its constituent traits being inherited en bloc” (R.C. Olby, “Constitutional and Hereditary Disorders.” In Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine volume 1. Eds. W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 413.

[3] Sean Quinlan also points out that this perception may have been at odds with the Enlightenment ideal of tabula rasa, where an individual was born a sensible being and conditioned by his experiences with the environment. The fixed hereditary state of an individual was part of a conceptual shift within French medicine, where physicians began to develop new approaches and meanings to reproduction, sexual generation, and thus, inheritance. See Quinlan’s paper, “Inheriting Vice, Acquiring Virtue: Hereditary Disease and Moral Hygiene in Eighteenth-Century France.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 80 (2006).

[4] Rosenberg, “The Bitter Fruit,” 157.

[5] Lomax, “Hereditary or Acquired Disease?” 373.

[6] J.C. Waller, “The Illusion of Explanation: The Concept of Hereditary Disease, 1770-1870.”Journal of the History of Medicine 57 (2002), 415

[7] Marten, A New Theory of Consumption, 3.

[8] Waller, “The Illusion of Explanation,” 421.

[9] Waller, “The Illusion of Explanation,” 413.

[10] Waller, “The Illusion of Explanation,” 414.

[11] Waller, “The Illusion of Explanation,” 410.

[12] Waller, “The Illusion of Explanation,” 426.

[13] Rosenberg, “The Bitter Fruit,” 161.

[14] Rosenberg, “The Bitter Fruit,” 161.

[15] F.B. Smith, The Retreat of Tuberculosis, 1850-1950 (London: Croom-Helm, Ltd., 1988), 40.

[16] Rosenberg, “The Bitter Fruit,” 154-5.

[17] Rosenberg, “The Bitter Fruit,” 155.


The Purging of English Cholera: The Anticontagionism vs. Contagionism Debate

During spring 1817, rumours floated towards the English that virulent form of cholera morbus was attacking British ports in India, and was heading towards Asia. This vicious nature of cholera was the first wave in a series of epidemics during the nineteenth century, and Europeans held their breath as the disease continued its journey, hitting Europe by 1827. Fears of the disease hitting England was well absorbed, as on September 15, 1830, Lord Heytesbury, Russian Ambassador, wrote to the Early of Aberdeen, His Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, claiming that “the accounts of the progress of cholera morbus are now becoming rather alarming. It is making rapid advances towards Moscow…If the disease once reaches Moscow there can be little doubt that it will spread to St. Petersburg, Warsaw and hence into Germany…It appears to be of a very deadly nature and to have all the character of real Indian cholera.”[1] Nevertheless, the second wave was even more lethal than the first, and English citizens first felt the brunt of the disease during 1831-1832 as the epidemic hit the United Kingdom.  A third wave would follow during 1848-1849, a fourth, 1853-1854, a fifth 1866, before disappearing.

The magnitude of cholera’s impact was well known. Mainly helpless during the first English epidemic, during 1831-1832, English scholars, doctors, and members of government attempted to understand the nature and cause of the disease, in order to combat the affliction it provided. Between the years of 1845-1856, a stunning 700 works on cholera were published in London alone.[2] Introducing the battle against the disease, Frank Mort emphasizes that the “history of the disease is largely preserved within the narrative of the public health and other reform movements in early Victorian Britain. Health, housing, sanitation, the emergence of preventive medicine, the foundations of a national system of education, the reform of industrial conditions – these objects have formed the classic terrain for histories of government and public administration.”[3] Though the during the epidemic of 1831-1832, attention was mainly focused on living urban conditions, and the link of medicine to social factors in order to advocate sanitary reform, the 1840s were spent on focusing on the pathology and mode of communication of cholera itself. Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine explains that though the 1830s were dominated by the Reform Movements which led to unemployment, poverty, hunger and unrest, and placed Industrial England into unsanitary conditions, a pure contagious version of cholera nevertheless dominated the medical picture; the theory lost its ground to modified versions and non-contagion theories by the second and third epidemics. By the mid-1840s, an intense debate occurred between two parties intent on proving their explanation of cholera: the anticontagionists, and the contagionists.

Disagreements about pathology and cause resided within the contagionist camp, which explained pathological explanations by virtue of infectious agents, such as “viruses,” and the non-contagionist camps, which advocated miasma theories of atmospheric conditions as a cause of the disease. Vinten-Johnasen et al also classify the camps into “pure contagiosness” – contact (with infected skin), formities (e.g. infected bedding), and infection (“virus”) – and “pure non-contagiousness” – Sydenham’s theory of epidemic constitution (atmospheric changes/seasonal pressures), miasmas, and inhaling of poisons. Margaret Pelling also notes that during the Chadwickian period of public health, with Edwin Chadwick’s New Poor Law, historians note the conflict between the miasmatic theory of the sanitarians and what she calls the contagium virum theories as a sharp polarization upon which by the late 1840s, the sanitarians received victory. She argues that this story is not historically accurate, and attempts to destroy the simplicity of the account in Cholera, Fever and English Medicine 1825-1865 (though a very difficult and often confusing book). She presents the thesis denying the sharp polarization between the two camps, and rejects ideas that the contagionists were forebears of later germ theory and provided foundations for modern bacteriology, or that their theories—especially John Snow’s (1813-1858)—about cholera were ignored due to external and socio-political factors from the opposite camp. Rather, she argues that there were several theories of contagium virum, a subtlety picked up by Vinten-Johansen et al, as they note the development of the “contingent Contagionism” camp, and its initial London proponent, James Johnson.[4] The contingent Contagionism camps attempted to merge the problems of the contagionists and the anticontagionists, and merged favoured perspectives of both: from the miasmaists, the chemical curative agent for cholera resides from vegetable and animal matters, and from the contagionists, the transmission of infections and “virus” produced from sick bodies. The contingent contagionists also provided an environmental predisposition for cholera, arguing that crowded populations, concentrated filth were forbearers for the spread of cholera, and thus were also able to advocate sanitary reforms.

The contingent contagionists were widely perceived, and Vinten-Johansen et al provide other supporters of the theory, including E.O. Spooner, William Farr, Justus Leibig and John Snow. Since history grants John Snow credit for solving the transmission of cholera, or least setting the stage for later germ theory, Vinten-Johansen et al implies that based on Snow’s analogy between smallpox and cholera, he was a contingent Contagionism, though by fall 1848, he had changed his mind. Thus, merging his own view with the contingent contagionists, John Snow’s theory was widely received, and even led to governmental support in removing the handle from the Broad Street water pump. Pelling, on the other hand, denies initial success of Snow’s theory, and argues instead that there existed a delayed reception to both John Snow’s theory, and a similar proponent in William Budd’s version, which was mainly due to the lack of explanatory power of their hypothesis.


[1] Sandra Hemple, The Medical Detective: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera (London: Granta Books, 2006), p.9.

[2] Peter Vinten-Johansen, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Russell Rip. Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.166.

[3] Frank Mort, Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-Moral Politics in England Since 1830 (2nd Edition, Oct 2007).

[4] Vinten-Johansen, et al, Cholera, Chloroform and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow, p.178.


Monday Series: A Disease with no Remedy II



Jan Steen (1626-1679). The Doctor's Visit (1658-1662). Oil on panel. 49 × 42


The word “tuberculosis” was not introduced as a classification term until 1834 by the German physician Johann Lukas Schönlein (1793-1864),[1] though it was first used by the British physician Richard Morton (1637-1698) in 1689. Commonly named by the medical community as “phthisis,” or “consumption,” signifying the wasting characteristics of the chronic disease, this “white plague” was the single largest killer of all adults in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and served as a representation of the heightened sensibility idiosyncratic of an enlightened culture of “high-living.”[2] Often at odds with reality, phthisis was a chronic, symptomatic disease without a distinctive cause, and as a result, “its nonepidemic nature also increased its appeal for the enlightened, since the patient was able to die individually, not amidst the countless dead.”[3] However, as David Barnes points out, the illness was not merely a metaphor, “not just a sign through which social relations or anxieties expressed themselves.”[4] It was a real disease that killed real people and despite descriptions of romantic imagery and snobbish aspirations towards sensibility, it was a disease that doctors struggled to cure.

In 1720, English physician Benjamin Marten (1704-1782) wrote, “of all the Distempers that afflict Mankind, there’s not one, for the Cure of which more Remedies have been appropriated and invented than a Phthisis, or Consumption of the Lungs.”[5] In the search of remedies, William Lambe (1765-1847) agrees “the treasures of nature have been exhausted by the experiments of benevolence, or the audacity of empiricism.”[6] Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) echoed similar words in 1803: “For the treatment of consumption…a great deal more remains to be done than to add to the mass of unexceptionable evidence, lately produced. No uniform method, and no single medicine is capable of effecting a cure in all the cases, referred to any denomination of disease.”[7] The long incubation period and occasionally asymptomatic nature of phthisis, along with its flexible and complex etiological model, led physicians to concentrate on developing cures for visible symptoms.

A mixture of medicine and dietetics were advised for consumptive patients, with an emphasis on proper diet, since “the patient in general should…eat food of easy Digestion”[8] to limit any obstructions in the bodily fluids. Edward Barry (1696-1776) advocated a popular milk diet, which he believed to be the “most fit to repair the great Decays of Consumptive Persons.”[9] Although Marten agreed with the theoretical benefits of a milk diet, he noted that he not “been able to discern such good Effects from it, in a true Phthisis, as to merit its being rely’d on for Course.”[10] Other physicians were more particular about outlining a dietary regime for consumptives. Philip Stern, for example, outlines a diet that allows a consumptive to “eat as often as he has an appetite, but never much at a time.”[11] No eggs or other animal foods were allowed, although a small quantity of veal or chicken broth was acceptable if the patient was weak. In addition, “potatoes, turnips, carrots, parsneps, beans, spinach, broccoli, fallets, bread and rice” was to constitute the general bill of fare, along with almond milk, barley water, or milk and water.[12]

Combined with diet, medicines were recommended to promise relief for the consumptive, “as they defend the Blood from the purulent Matter mixed with it and are mild and penetrating, as not to obstruct or irritate the Lungs in passing through them.”[13] Samuel Foart Simmons (1750-1813) advised the use of the elixir of vitriol, Peruvian bark, balsams, and periodic bleeding, and notes that “the use of blisters and issues, opiates, a milk and vegetable diet, exercise, and change of air, are pretty generally recommended by all.”[14] Other symptomatic cures, such as emertics, catharites, sorbefacients, epispastics, sudorifics, expectorants, demurcents, narcotics, suppuratories, astringents, tonics, angostura, lichen, were also advised. Beddoes in particular was fond of the foxglove. There were also other unique treatment methods. Many physicians advised Thomas Sydenham’s recommendation of country air and horseback riding. Lambe was fond of distilled water,[15] and Simmons wrote about “earth bath,” an old and common remedy in Genada and some parts of Andalusia.[16]


[1] E. Lomax, “Hereditary or Acquired Disease? Early Nineteenth Century Debates on the Cause of Infantile Scrofula and Tuberculosis.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 32 no.4 (Oct. 1977), 357. Prior to the closing decades of the nineteenth century, phthisis was commonly believed only to afflict in pulmonary forms; the presence of the tubercule bacillus in other parts of the body proved that tuberculosis was prevalent as other diseases, particularly in scrofula, or King’s Evil.

[2] Historian Margaret DeLacy explicates that though there was a large numerical increase in deaths from consumption, this does not mean that more deaths were statistically attributed to consumption due to any fundamental change in the concept of the disease; one does not suggest the other, though it may raise questions for historical analysis. M.DeLacy, “Nosology, Mortality, and Disease Theory in the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54 (April 1999), 266.

[3] C. Lawlor and A. Suzuki, “The Disease of the Self: Representing Consumption, 1700-1830,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74 (2000). 465. Roy Porter also provides an excellent description of the effect of Enlightenment ideology in the social perception of consumption, in particular, the ways in which the culture of sensibility affected diets and social habits. See his paper,. “Consumption: Disease of the Consumer Society?” in Consumption and the World of Goods. Eds. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 58-81.

[4] D. Barnes, The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 19.

[5] B. Marten, A New Theory of Consumption: More especially of a phthisis, or consumption of the lungs…(2nd Ed.) (London: Printed for R. Knaplock, 1722), 75.

[6] W. Lambe, A Medical and Experimental Inquiry into the Origins, Symptoms, and Cure of Constitutional Diseases; Particularly Scrophula, Consumption, Cancer, and Gout (Illustrated by Cases) (London; J. Mawman, 1805), 8.

[7] T. Beddoes, Observations on the Medical and Domestic management of the Consumptive: On the Powers of Digitalis Purpurea and on the Cure of Schrophula (New York: Penniman and Co., 1803), 4-5.

[8] Marten, A New Theory of Consumption, 142.

[9] E. Barry, A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs with a Previous Account of Nutrition, and the Structure and Use of the Lungs (London: Printed for William & John Innys, 1727), 260.

[10] Marten, A New Theory of Consumption, 145.

[11] P. Stern, Medical Advice to the Consumptive and Asthmatic People of England (16th ed) (London: J. Almon, 1776), 29.

[12] Stern, Medical Advice to the Consumptive and Asthmatic, 30.

[13] Barry, A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs, 262.

[14] S.F. Simmons, Practical Observations on the Treatment of Consumptions (London: J. Murrary, 1780), 31.

[15] Lambe, A Medical and Experimental Inquiry, 21.

[16] Simmons, Practical Observations on the Treatment of Consumptions, 78.

Monday Series: The Criminalized Body V

Body-Snatching and the Criminalized Body: A Badge of a Marginalized Condition

O Poverty! thou art the unpardonable offence…
Thou hast neither rights, charters, immunities nor liberties![1]

One of the major public conflicts with dissection stemmed from their fears of body-snatching. The shallow graves of the poor[2] were prime targets for body snatches and the ongoing debate between body snatching for purposes of dissection and the 1752 Act left the poor sympathetic to the condemned criminal, whose body was further destroyed and punished through dissection.

The sanctity of the grave further propelled eschatological attitudes towards dissection and the body. Moreover, confusion about the status of the corpse as a property right raises further issues towards ownership, dissection, and burials—Ruth Richardson argues that at the height of London’s graverobbing scenes in the 18th century, the corpse was largely viewed as a commodity, bidded and sold in an underground market between thieves and surgeon-anatomists. However, as the dead body did not constitute real property, no legal laws were technically violated with grave-robbing, nor could the family of the condemned corpse have any claim over burial rights.[3] By 1783, as a result of popular turmoil at the gallows, London executions were transferred from Tyburn to Newgate, but it did not cease to account for the class betrayal or bitterness of the London poor.[4] Jonathan Sawday also captures the status of the corpse as a reflection of the exploitation of the marginalized poor:

The question of the status of the dead human body is a fraught one. It is particularly fraught since, throughout the world, many indigenous peoples have ceased to tolerate the western habit of ‘acquiring’ human remains for scientific (and sometimes non-scientific) investigation…some Europeans looked to the marginal members of their own societies – the criminal, the poor, the insane, suicides, orphans, even, simply, ‘strangers’ – as potential ‘material’ upon which they could legitimately practice their own researches and investigations into the human form.[5]

As potential “material,” the criminal and the poor therefore were denied propriety rights over their own bodies; but we should not be quick to catalogue the status of criminality as a direct consequence of the poor, or vice versa, even though the Poor Laws of the nineteenth century attempted to make poverty a crime.

By the nineteenth century, the New Poor Laws and the drafting of the revised Anatomy Act further heightened the prejudice against the criminalized body and the poor’s objections to dissection. In 1832, Jeremy Bentham’s proposed bill aimed to ensure the privilege of the Royal College to preserve their rights to corpses; the bill weaved elements of Benthamite utilitarianism with Malthusian policies.[6] With the drafting of the bill and the new demand for bodies as a result of new anatomical-pathological models of disease, the 1832 Anatomy Act came into effect. With this Act, a new definition of property rights allowed family members the right of burial, although it also extended medical privileges, allowing the medical profession to obtain the corpses of the poor for purposes other than dissection. By 1834, the Poor Law Amendment established the New Poor Law, which essentially cast poverty as a crime.

It is no surprise that the marginalized poor found both the Anatomy Act and the New Poor Laws morally reprehensible, since it implied that poverty reflected moral shortcomings, and the vulnerability of the poor and criminal alike were adequate grounds for exploitation. Thomas Lacquer’s paper emphasizes the role of the pauper, an even more vulnerable state than the poor man, and how by the early nineteenth century paupers had no claim whatsoever over their own bodies, and they were aware in death they could end up owned by someone else.[7] Lacquer quotes a popular ditty reflective from the period:

Rattle his bones over the stones,
He’s only a pauper who nobody owns.

It was widely aware that paupers, more so than the poor, had no rights over their own bodies, particularly against the medical profession. As Lacquer argues,

To be a pauper meant not only to contemplate burial with indignity, having one’s life publicly marked the most dismal of failures, but also having one’s body, worth nothing alive, sold for dissection when one had ceased to own it. To be poor was to be profoundly vulnerable. Worse, to be a pauper was to be so vulnerable…that one risked death by accepting help from those who appeared to offer food and shelter.[8]

The essential point derived from Lacquer’s argument is his approach in defining the bodies of the poor as reflective of the badge of their (workshop) condition, an image of the body politics in nineteenth-century England.


Unlike the Middle Ages, which signified distinctions between angelic and monstrous bodies, the latter possibly a vessel for demonic evil, by the eighteenth century, the body politics of England was a reflection of the distinct social hierarchies, whereby one’s identity could be apparent down to one’s own skin. Morgan and Rushton remark that “the habit of dissection…did establish in the minds of the literate the idea that social reality – and the consequence of a particular way of life – were to some extent written on the body, and that if the truth about someone was to be obtained, the body was the first place to start.”[9] Thus, one’s self-identification could be viable upon the body itself, essentially embodied as a “mark of identity.”

The criminalized body is an example of embodied identity, with the mark of moral stagnation apparently fused on the body itself; thus criminals were usually described as physically repulsive, and any deformities as a mark of “criminality.” Becker for example, mentions that Elizabeth Sawyer, tried and convicted in 1621 for witchcraft, had a “crooked and deformed body,” proof of her spiritual corruption.[10] As well, Helkiah Crooke’s (1576-1635) An Explanation of the Fashion and vse of three and fifty instruments of Chirvrgey contains a section entitled “From the Printer to the Reader,” which contains a lavishly detailed of a criminal’s deformed body brought to the College of Physician’s Hall “to be Cut vp for an Anatomy.” [11] Focused on the deformed exterior of the corpse, the printer remarks his scorn and disgust for the criminal, who had been sentenced to be executed for the murder of a fellow member of the College. What’s extremely notable about the Printer’s description is his focus and discussion on the criminal’s feet, which he remarks was a traditional trait associated with demonic evil[12] To the printer then, the deformed nature of the body is evidence for the criminalizing status of the corpse. As Hilary Nunn points out, the printer, in his detailed description, left out the name of the condemned criminal,[13] disregarding the criminals’ own identity for the identity that the printer chose to give him, the criminalized body.  Is it merely a coincidence that the first criminal to be condemned under the “Murder Act,” Thomas Wilford, was a deformed man, born with only one arm?

Can we thus become accustomed that assume that eighteenth century individuals could attribute “self” to the body, making it monstrous, worth of scorn and ridicule?[14] The criminalized body captures this “otherness” trait, and becomes a vessel for society’s discord, vengeance for justice, and beliefs of the criminal status. Hume had argued the existence of repugnant “moral monsters,” those “anti-human” creatures embodying the marks of their heinous nature upon their bodies. He defines the moral monster as “[a] creature, absolutely malicious and spiteful were there any such in Nature, must be worse than indifferent to the images of vice and virtue. All his sentiments must be inverted, and directly opposed to those, which prevail in the ‘human species.’”[15] Steintrager, however, notes that Hume’s creature only marks the absolute limit of what is considered human; the epistemological focus then develops a construction of identity, in collaboration to social perspectives. He remarks that to “moral monstrosity’s role in constructions of identity must by added a secondary primary role: not only does the model of monstrosity in humanity’s certain groups, it allows for active interventions at the social and institutional levels.”[16]

Thus, the mark of the criminalized body, its true identity, is a social construction, an embodiment of the social reality of the individual, heightened and rectified by the legislations such as the 1752 “Murder Act,” and the 1832 Anatomy act, which attempted to provide legal justifications for the exploitation of the marginalized society, through the process of dissection.

*Thanks, Dear Reader, for your support in the first of the Monday Series. I hope you enjoyed this one. Next week I’ll begin a new series: “A Disease with no Remedy: Confronting Hereditary Phthisis, 1714-1830” where I examine some of the historical perceptions behind tuberculosis as a hereditary malady, and how medical practitioners recommended various dietetics to treat symptoms. In part, this series is an attempt to impart a historiography of medical hereditarianism by examining the reasons behind its popularity as a medical idea, from 1714 to 1830 in France and Britain.

Until next week, happy reading!!

[1] G. Beaumont (1898) in Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p.261.

[2] Though by no means this was simply restricted to the poor; Richardson also notes that the wealthy spent a fair amount of money in securing coffins, or else digging deeper graves (Richardson, p.98).

[3] Richardson, p.58.

[4] Richardson, p.75. Richardson also notes that this led to the gradual withdrawal of public executions, towards the privacy of prisons.

[5] Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the human body in Renaissance Culture (London & New York: Routledge, 1995), p.3.

[6] Richardson pp.111-115.

[7] Thomas Lacquer, “Bodies, Death, and Pauper Funerals.” Representations 1 (Feb. 1983), pp.109-131; p.122.

[8] Lacquer, p.125.

[9] Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, “Visible Bodies: Power, Subordination and Identity in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World.” Journal of Social History 39:1 (2005), pp.39-64; p.41.

[10] Lucinda M Becker, Death and the Early Modern Englishwoman (Adershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2003), p.77.

[11] A treatise bound with Crooke’s 1631 edition of Microcosmographia. Image reproduced with permission of the British Library in Hillary M. Nunn, Staging Anatomies: Dissection and Spectacle in Early Stuart Tragedy (England: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p.37.

[12] Nunn, p.35.


[14] See Denis Todd’s Imagining Monsters: Miscrentions of the Self in Eighteenth Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), where Todd gives an excellent literary analysis of Swift’s Guliver’s Travels, and the ideas of “otherness” by virtue of the character’s deformities. See especially Chapter 5, “A Lamp of Deformity,” and Chapter 7, “What the Body Says.”

[15] An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals (1751), in James A. Steintrager, “Perfectly Inhuman: Moral Monstrosity in Eighteenth Century Discourse.”Eighteenth-Century Life 21.2 (1997), pp.114-132; p.116.

[16] Steintrager, p.125.

Mind & Body: The Philosopher’s Body as a Subject

I’ve been doing a lot of (re-)reading lately on ideas of the body and the embodiment of  knowledge on the body–mainly because I was aiming for some background reading as I prepared the CFP for the 2011  HAPSAT Conference. Some of these were based on reading summaries I prepared for Prof. Lucia Dacome’s “Body and Medicine in Early Modern Europe” course at IHPST. So if you’re tired of these article summaries, please let me know!

Article Summaries:

Paula Findlen, “The Scientist’s Body: The Nature of Woman Philosopher in Enlightenment Italy” in The Faces of Nature in Enlightment Europe (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts-Verlag, 2003), pp. 211-236.

Simon Schaffer, “Regeneration: The Body of Natural Philosophers in Restoration England” in Science Incarnate: Historical Embodiments of Natural Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,  1998), pp.83-120.

The philosopher’s mind in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was often perceived in close relation with his body. Could there be a separation between the ideas of the mind and carnal knowledge associated with the body? Could knowing bodily secrets hold the key to philosopher’s knowledge and its interpretations in the mind? Paula Findlen and Simon Schaffer bring these issues into light, Findlen narrating the story of eighteenth century Bologna’s “Virgin Doctor,” Laura Bassi, and Schaffer presenting perspectives on regeneration within the Royal Society in Restoration England. Both Findlen and Schaffer analyze the ways in which natural philosopher’s knowledge and integrity is explored through perspectives of their body and bodily functions.

Findlen tells us that eighteenth century fascination with Laura Bassi was not only due to her role as one of the first female graduate of the University of Bologna and its most celebrated professor, but rather due to Bassi’s merging of two distinct types of knowledge: scientific knowledge associated with the philosopher, and carnal knowledge of the woman’s body. Prior to her marriage to Giuseppe Veratti in 1738, Bassi was perceived as a virginal icon of knowledge, dedicated to the glory of the city as its Minerva. Successfully defending forty-nine theses by the time she was twenty years old, Bassi was highly regarded as an intellectual as much as a woman, especially within the cultural movement of “modern conversations.” During the 1730s, Bassi continuously tested her intellectual mettle within public settings, often engaging in discourses with scholarly men, sparking rumours sexual misbehaviour within the groups. Continuous jokes and satire circulated within the city, since as Findlen explains, Bassi’s high intellect embodied a masculine state of mind, which her body was expected to reflect. Bassi’s mixed reputation – as a philosopher, and a sexual woman – often centered her in city gossip, alluding damage to her reputation; public perspectives of Bassi’s closest supporters were often viewed as her lovers, or at least admirers (e.g. Zanotti, Beccari, Bianchi).

There was as much interest in Bassi’s sexual life, if not more, as in her choice to focus on modern issues of Newtonian philosophy and physics, rather than restricting herself to ancient texts. Findlen argues that the extreme interest in Bassi’s body essentially was due to the fact that Bassi’s body was distinctively a female one, and it embodied potential for a maternal image of knowledge. The possibility that Bassi could be the new Galatea – a woman shaped and molded by men – also caused problems for her reputation, and reminded the public that Bassi’s mind simply could not be separated from her body. Despite being an object of envy and ridicule, Bassi eventually provided a solution of the problem of her female body: she decided to take charge of her own sexuality, restricting it to the boundaries of marriage in order to remove it from public scandal. She believed this to be the only way to ensure her reputation and allow her to teach in public. Bolognese citizens, however, were shocked at her decision, for many expected her to maintain the image of the virginal Minerva. As Findlen argues, “Once a man had dominion over her body, what would happen to her mind?” Nevertheless, Bassi eventually gave birth to eight children, and taught a successful physics course in her home, though her frequent pregnancies continued to remind males of her differences.  The plain awareness of her sexual difference is also reflected in debates as to whether Bassi was allowed to join the Academy of the Institute of Sciences (she did, in 1734). Bassi is a reflection of one of the rare women who succeeded, though the distinction between her mind and body never really disappeared.

Schaffer on the other hand, examines the close relation between instrumental use of the body, and traditions of “magical, religious and symbolic action.” He provides three instances upon which the idealized philosopher’s body was used, or viewed, for scientific experiments by the Royal Society in Restoration England: the blind Jan Vermassen, who could discriminate colors by touch, the sheep’s blood transfusion into Arthur Coga, and “stroker” Valentine Greatrakes’ miraculous cures. The Royal Society (especially Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle) emphasized the exploration beyond bodily limits of knowledge; the use of instruments – e.g. the eyeglasses, the microscope – could expand the frontiers upon which knowledge was obtained. The idea that formulated was whether through the body politic, the regeneration of bodies could be possible through natural or spiritual powers, in order to distance the world of refined bodies (and thus reliable facts) from the grotesque. Schaffer provides the example of the “royal touch,” which presented the monarch as the spiritual healer of the nation’s wounds and the embodiment of its restored health. The royal touch to cure King’s evil, an old tradition that emphasizes the idea that the king’s touch could cure King’s Evil, a disease known as scrofula, which caused hideous boils. Thousands knelt before Charles’ I, and each time he did so, he demonstrated his divine right to rule. After the Commonwealth, Charles II continued the practice – though it was also illegal for anyone else to claim cure for the disease. The insecurity of the monarch and elaborate processions towards the use of the royal touch seemed to remind him of the clear contrast between angelic and monstrous bodies, a gesture that carried implications upon natural philosophy within the idea of regeneration.

Vermassen’s case raised a philosophical debate of whether “color” was confined to the body, igniting questions between real colors inherent in bodies, and imaginary ones (e.g. Descartes). Boyle and Descartes denied this distinction, and Boyle himself argued that different bodily states produce different colors, demonstrating that bodily sensations could not reliably be trusted. He emphasized the use of instruments as a way of perfecting the human fallacies in order to restore man to Eden. Thus, following Boyle, to test on one’s own senses became a moral duty of the natural philosopher, and is demonstrated by Coga’s transfusion with sheep’s blood. Schaffer argues that like optical and philosopher’s instruments, the idea of transfusion was perceived by seventeenth century natural scientists as a way of restoring prelapsarian man’s perfection, by reversing some of the Fall’s effects. Experimental philosophy also subjected itself to human conditions, using the saint as a subject. The idea of regeneration was also spread to debate about the roles of mundane bodies and divine spirits, as with continuous observations and experiments on Greatreakes’ hands, which were believed to exhibit some divine conditions, or at least a divine spirit in Greatreakes’ body.

Both Schaffer and Findlen’s arguments presents a historical picture upon which ideas about the body were closely tied to ideas of the mind, even within natural philosophers themselves, representing idealized beliefs about the process in obtaining knowledge. What we receive from their arguments is that social meanings of bodily techniques often is reflected in the philosopher’s use of representation of the body – knowing the body reflects the mind’s status, the philosopher can thus use it to explore and expand knowledge itself.