VPFA and NUI Study Day – Mystery and Medicine: The Dark Side of Science in Victorian Fiction
Keynote 2—Mr Alexander Black, Department of Anatomy, NUI Galway
‘The Early Years of Anatomy in Galway’
After lunch, conference attendees gathered at the appointed time to be escorted to NUI Galway’s Anatomy Lecture Theatre. It is at first glance a modestly-proportioned room, but the dimensions are specific ones: vertical as well as horizontal planes are employed, with benches arranged on a precipitous incline to allow the entire assembly a view of the dissecting table. The latter was notable by its absence, however, at the start of the fascinating lecture by the engaging Mr Black—but more on this anon. We began by hearing a little of NUI Galway’s origins as one of three colleges established as a result of the Queen’s Colleges (Ireland) Act 1845: ‘In order to supply the want, which has long been felt in Ireland, of an improved academical education, equally accessible to all classes of the community without religious distinction.’
The colleges were intentionally nondenominational, and professors were forbidden under statute to make any statement disrespectful to the religious or political convictions of their students. Due to the absence of religious instruction inside the colleges, they were labelled ‘godless’—particularly by the Roman Catholic hierarchy of the time who were concerned that despite the statutes, Catholic students would be placed in a potentially morally hazardous environment.
The ‘discouraging’ circumstances under which the college opened on the 30th October 1849 were summed up in the college president’s report to the Queen:
The Town of Galway possesses a population of not more than 20,000 inhabitants, the greater portion of whom are in a state of the most abject poverty: accordingly, the number of families likely to avail themselves of academic instruction for their children, is, at the present time, very limited. The disastrous occurrences of the last few years have pressed with peculiar severity upon the Province of Connaught, and the entire West of Ireland.
One manifestation of the poor relief necessitated by famine was the Union Workhouse, which, as we were shown on a contemporary map, was situated directly over the road from the college. In this bald fact of geographical proximity was a dark intimation of how the fraught relationship between ‘town and gown’ would develop over ensuing decades.
For a department of anatomy to function, it needs a reliable source of bodies. The concept of donating one’s mortal remains to medical science not being a wildly popular one in the nineteenth century, in Ireland as elsewhere pains were taken to ensure that bodies didn’t go missing at the hands of the ‘sack ’em up men’. New funerary structures and contraptions were contrived to this end: mortsafes, deadhouses, and watchtowers. However, for the anatomists of Galway—a college established after the Anatomy Act of 1832 created a legal source of anatomical specimens—lawful arrangements for their procurement could be made.
One such option was using the bodies of the recently hanged, which had been one of the only legal sources prior to 1832. Charles Croker King, Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at the college, would also glean what information he could from the process of the hanging itself, in order to develop understanding of what is now known as forensic pathology. This knowledge had particular application in cases in which a person is discovered hanged: had they hanged themselves, or had they been killed and then hanged in order to avoid detection? Croker King’s vivid reports remind us that rigid stylistic demarcations between literary and scientific writing were not yet in place in the 1850s:
The culprit maintained considerable fortitude, but the frequent drawn, deep inspirations, and faltering steps, bespoke the sufferings of the inward man. It was a beautiful autumnal evening; the sun, as if in mockery of the solemn scene, danced upon the adjoining river, and illuminated a dense crowd of human beings, principally women and children, congregated to witness the dying struggles of a fellow creature. Their conduct, upon the whole, was not indecorous, but they evidently regarded the scene as a serious amusement.
Also legal, and far more reliable—not to mention geographically convenient—than depending on haphazard opportunities to secure the material remains of public executions was the procuration of the corpses of those paupers who remained unclaimed by family or friend from the neighbouring workhouse.
At an appropriately dramatic juncture in the lecture, Mr Black revealed to the audience a trapdoor at his feet. When opened, the ‘missing’ dissecting table was revealed to be laying in a subterranean chamber, a chain and pulley system enabling it to be raised into the theatre when replete with an anatomical specimen. The reason for this arrangement was, Mr Black pointed out, indicated by a long-since bricked up archway in the chamber, at the head of the table. It was through this archway that bodies would be introduced onto the table, having completed their brief journey over the wall of the workhouse and across the road to the anatomy theatre.
This arrangement with the workhouse, while a necessary one for the viability of the School of Anatomy, did not ingratiate them with the local community. Mistakes and blunders were sometimes made, and the results could be horrifying. Mr Black described the cases which had precipitated the end of the practice, one of which was reported in the 6 April 1878 edition of the Connaught Telegraph:
A DREADFUL OUTRAGE ON HUMANITY was committed last week in the Galway Workhouse. A poor woman having died within its inhospitable walls, was removed for dissection to the Queen’s College Medical School. Through some culpable negligence the greater portion of the body was mislaid, and only some entrails of another pauper returned for burial. When the funeral was about to take place, the relatives of the deceased, finding the coffin very light, forced open the lid, and discovered the hideous truth. A daughter of the poor woman, flung the mangled entrails into her apron, and rushing back to the Workhouse, threw them down at the gate. The Bishop of Galway was so horrified at the occurrence that he forbade the Chaplain to say Mass in the Workhouse until ample reparation had been made.
Bishop McEvilly was unequivocal in his opinion that current arrangements effectively resulted in the ‘rich preying on the bodies of the poor’. The School of Anatomy negotiated the resulting existential threat by putting rigorous checks and balances in place, and Mr Black displayed a material example of one of these: the Record of Dissections book, begun that same year.
Mr Black’s lecture was a great demonstration of how science and, particularly in this instance, medical practice do not exist as ‘pure’ disciplines functioning in a vacuum. He carefully delineated the very particular and tangled strands of history, culture, religion, and geography, and the specific influences of individual personality, from which an institution such as the NUI Galway Department of Anatomy emerges; myriad factors that this type of institution particularly—concerned as it is with such emotive and fundamental human sensitivities and taboos—is compelled to negotiate if it is to survive and thrive. JM
Parallel Session 2
Medicine and Ethics
This was an excellent panel on eugenic aspects of nineteenth century medicine. Jennifer Diann Jones brought to life the horrors of vivisection on the human subject in her paper on the anti-vivisectionist, eugenicist novelist Arabella Kenealy. Her paper on Kenealy’s ‘A Human Vivisection’ from The Ludgate (1896) followed the purpose and potential results of the moving boundaries of science. This was illuminated through Victorian belief in the ‘proper’ role of pain and chloroform and the acceptance that masculinity may be constructed to include willingness to watch suffering in the operating room. The reliability of ‘informed consent’ versus the lure of money to the lower classes was also argued through the protagonist’s demise.
The second speaker was Debbie Harrison, who spoke about the moral barometer of forensic medicine through the role of the doctor-detective in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868) and in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872). Her paper made the case that forensic success and morality are not interchangeable in these novels. Harrison argues that the success of the detectives Ezra Jennings and Tertuis Lydgate is the result their liminal identities: Jennings, through his ethnicity and drug addiction and Lydgate, through his debt and corruption. So, the relationship between new science, change, and addiction was carefully traced in this thought- provoking paper.
Finally, Christopher Pittard, spoke about the writer C.L. Pirkis’ book The Experience of Loveday Brook (1894). Locating the interaction between detective novels and antivivisection narratives, this paper not only considered the etymological double standard of ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ in relation to human and animal, it also worked through layers of social implication in the use of vivisection. The paper framed the argument that vivisection can only serve a medical purpose, if the results mean something to creatures of the same order. So the desire to extrapolate results from animals that are of the lower order, reduces the status of man. Subtly, the paper traced the order of living dissection in Pirkis’ novel from the higher animals, to the working class, to the female detective herself: so Pirkis’ book serves as a warning that the desire to carry out living experiments has the potential to lead to eugenics. SZ
Fin-de-Siècle: Three Papers on the Late Nineteenth-Century Gothic
James Machin’s paper was entitled: ‘“A slight lesion in the grey matter, that is all”: fin-de-siècle medical practice in Arthur Machen’s weird fiction’. Machen’s career as a writer was impacted by his encounters with medicine; he started to write fiction after failing to pass the exam for the Royal College of Surgeons. Machin discussed cases of surgical neurosurgery that influenced Machen, for example The Great God Pan presents a horrifying inversion of positive neurosurgical procedure. Doctor Raymond experiments with brain surgery, destroying rather than healing the mind of the subject Mary, transforming her from healthy to pathological. Machen’s weird stories are peppered with malign doctors, often conducting horrible experiments on women. These malign doctor figures may have been influenced by Machen’s experiences of the medical practitioners attending his ill mother. However, Machin argues that Machen’s interest in medicine is negligible, and his use of surgical procedure merely superficial. Machen co-opts medical science for other purposes: in order to present his metaphysical convictions, and to push his anti-materialist agenda, his rejection of the idea that the secrets of the mind are best explained in matter.
Caitlin R. Duffy’s paper was entitled: ‘Cartography of the Imperial Mind: The Dangerous Forms and Reforms of Dracula’. She examined the mapping of mind, land, and body in late nineteenth-century culture, and looked at Dracula as literary case study. In Dracula, imperial and medical anxieties converge in narratives of invasion and regression, which Duffy explored by looking at cartography in the novel. Nineteenth-century brain scientists mapped the brain and its functions. David Ferrier vivisected animal brains and recorded his findings in pictures, cranial cartography. T. H. Huxley also mapped brains in this way, using human corpses in markedly unemotional depictions of human dissection. These medical practices were hugely useful in guiding the surgical profession, yet created anxieties over loss of subjectivity, and the idea that doctors could besiege and control the mind, anxieties which are dramatized in Dracula. Colonial maps functioned in a similar way, lessening conscience about invasion. Dracula is often read as a narrative of colonial counter-invasion. Duffy pinpointed examples of maps and atlases in the novel, which appear as guides to fortune. She analysed further how cartographic lines are breached by the Count, who constructs his own geography. Harker’s boundaries are ever shifting; there is a distinct lack of cartography near Castle Dracula, and the Count draws the lines around Harker’s existence.
Mathilde Giret’s paper was entitled: ‘Signs of the Plague in Dracula: A Literary and Medical Investigation’. Giret provided a convincing reading of signs of vampirism in Dracula as medical plague symptoms. The spread of vampirism in the novel echoes plague transmission; infected animals, rats, and flea bites. Lucy and Mina’s symptoms are redolent of early plague symptoms: headaches, fever, chills, weakness, sepsis, intolerance to light, sleeplessness, and delirium. The three physical symptoms of the plague are visible in Lucy too. Vampires traditionally sucked near the heart and didn’t pierce the skin, instead leaving a kind of love bite. Stoker’s choice of the neck suggests bubonic plague. Lucy also has a rash which mirrors that of septicaemic plague, as the disease enters the bloodstream. She also has respiratory failure, echoing pneumonic symptoms. Vampires are linked to the plague in myth; the German folk legend of Nachzehrere is particularly active when there are signs of plague. Giret closed by commenting that while we don’t know if Stoker was drawing on the plague, he was aware of how disease spawns myth; in his The Invisible Giant, cholera is allegorised into a monster. LBJ
The closing panel of the Medicine and Mystery study day focused on mental health. Emily Turner, from the University of Sussex, discussed ‘New Moon Journalism and Patient Powered Publications,’ focusing on the periodicals written by patients at mental health hospitals, the most famous of these being Hydra at Craiglockhart, though Turner’s focus was on New Moon, the publication of the Crichton Royal Institution. Turner identified two factors leading to the creation of such publications: the wider ‘literary atmosphere’ of Victorian journalism as offering a prototype for such magazines; and secondly, a shift in therapeutic strategies towards ergotherapy and moral therapy. These latter therapies, embodying the ideals of the eighteenth century physician William Battie, emphasised the importance of recreation and creative expression as embodied in the magazines, which were produced by patients in collaboration with staff as part of occupational health. Turner’s focus on one article in particular – the anonymous 1845 piece ‘Another Confession – Are the Insane Always in Error?’ – demonstrated the ways in which patient publications reflected the stylistics of Victorian journalism while occupying a liminal space between patient and staff, science and literature. Turner considered the ways in which the article deployed Victorian ideals of literary sympathy for therapeutic purposes: as the author of ‘Another Confession’ wrote: “I have sometimes thought that if I could, by words or writing, impress others with the inexpressible sufferings of those who feel the captivity as I do, it would not be living in vain to attract sympathy and alleviation even in the cases of a few.”
Sympathy was an implicit concept in the second paper of the panel. Marjolein Platjee of the University of Amsterdam examined Little Father Time’s suicide in Jude the Obscure, and the reductive explanation of the event offered by the attending doctor. Platjee compared Hardy’s novel to contemporary texts such as George Savage’s schema of types of suicide included in the 1892 Dictionary of Psychological Medicine, and S. A. K. Strahan’s project in tracing family trees to identify hereditary causes of suicide in Suicide and Insanity (1893). Platjee argued that such projects were attempts to reduce suicide to a single determining cause, whereas Hardy’s portrayal draws attention to a multiplicity of factors and Little Father Time’s factually correct, though tragic, reasoning. Platjee problematised both the doctor’s diagnosis (that it was in the child’s ‘nature’ to commit suicide) and the lack of practical value of such a diagnosis, failing to offer strategies for those suffering from suicidal tendencies, or living with the effects of these in others. Platjee provided a close reading of two key aspects of Hardy’s scene, arguing that Father Time’s suicide note implies that his death was not intended to end his own life, but to facilitate the lives of those around him; and noting the multiplicity of Jude’s responses to the body, problematising the reductive singularities of medical schema such as Savage’s.
The panel ended with Charlotte Whittingham’s ‘The Angel in the Asylum,’ a survey of Victorian alignments of femininity with mental disorder. Whittingham began on a methodological note, as a medical student at Imperial coming from a different disciplinary background to most of the day’s speakers, explicitly considering the questions of using literary and visual texts to understand and historicise illness. Whittingham’s strategy of punctuating her narrative with a dazzling array of literary quotations and visual sources (including quotations from Plath, de Beauvoir, Wilde, and Emily Dickinson, and paintings including works by Millais, Hogarth’s depiction of Bedlam in A Rake’s Progress (1735), and Andre Brouillet’s image of Charcot at the Salpetriere (1887)) offered a kaleidoscopic approach whereby cultural artefacts were not prescriptively interpreted, but allowed to echo each other in more suggestive ways. Whittingham did, however, linger further on a suggestive opening quotation: Virginia Woolf’s claim (in a letter to Ethel Smyth) that ‘My brain hums with scraps of poetry.’ A prevalent misquotation of the line adds ‘and madness’, making explicit what is implicit in Woolf’s original; the sense of literature as always already an experience of mental disturbance. Whittingham used this line as the basis of an explanation of the value of reading literature through the perspective of medical history.
While all three papers were clearly connected through the panel’s topic of mental health and madness, a subtler thread running through the panel was that of futurity, either in terms of the temporal schemes of treatment or broader questions of historical influence. Turner noted that patient powered publications such as New Moon acted as a precursor to modern day citizen science initiatives; Platjee’s reading of fin de siècle medical understandings of suicide critiqued Hardy’s fictional doctor for a failure to adequately address the needs of those left with the aftermath of suicide. Whittingham ended her survey of cultural representations of madness with a historicist speculation: would historians a hundred years in the future look back on twentieth-century personality-disorder treatment as absurd, as some Victorian treatments appear to us? This projection of the study of medicine and mystery into the twenty-second century proved a fitting note on which to end the symposium. CP
Louise Benson James is a second-year PhD student at the University of Bristol. Her research project looks at medical hysteria and the Gothic in fiction by women in 1850-1930.
James Machin completed a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London in 2016. His book Weird Fiction in Britain, 1880 to 1939 will be published in the Palgrave Gothic series in 2018. He is a co-editor of Faunus, the journal of the Arthur Machen society. Machin’s participation in the VPFA study day was supported by the Birkbeck Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund. He would also like to thank Mr Alexander Black for his generous help with the preparation of this blog post.
Christopher Pittard is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Portsmouth. He has published widely on Victorian popular culture, including in Studies in the Novel, Victorian Periodicals Review, Women: A Cultural Review, and Clues: A Journal of Detection. His books include Purity and Contamination in Late Victorian Detective Fiction (2011) and the co-edited Cambridge Companion to Sherlock Holmes (2018).
Sara Zadrozny is studying for a PhD in nineteenth-century literature at the University of Portsmouth. She is researching the intersection of female old age and medical narratives from 1845 to 1900. She also works as a tutor in English Literature at Oxford University’s School of Continuing Education and on the Oxford Experience teaching Victorian Literature and literary theory.