11th Feb 2016: Nineteenth-Century Science, Medicine, and Monsters by Jessica Roberts

Come along to The Castle Hotel in Manchester at 7pm to listen to Jessica’s talk. Enjoy socialising around learning and finding out something new…

Title of talk:

Nineteenth-Century Science, Medicine, and Monsters


Bullet points of what you would like to talk about:

  • The ‘vitality debate’ of the 1810s and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
  • The fractured self, degeneration, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde
  • Madness and physiognomy in Dracula

A few paragraphs on your subject:

Several branches of current medical science were created, discovered, and developed in the long nineteenth-century, including surgery and psychology. Some pseudosciences, now thankfully out of fashion, were also commonly practised. This talk diagnoses the most enduring monsters of nineteenth-century fiction in contemporary medical terms and reveals the relevant events behind the texts.
Science and medicine were more accessible (to the literate middle classes) than they are today.
The study of the sciences was a part of mainstream culture in the nineteenth century, long before increasing complexity and professionalization isolated it from the literate middle-class enthusiast. The Romantics were very keen on setting up various scientific societies and institutions, many of which are still up and running today. To give just a few examples of those that were set up in the period: the Linnaean Society was established in 1788, the Royal Institution in 1799, The Geological Society in 1807, and the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820.
This shows an emerging sense of science as part of culture, and one that the public participated in to a far greater extent than we are able to now. Medical and scientific lectures became popular in the period, with lectures open to the public and attended not just by students, but a wide audience with an interest in science, including women. It was in the late eighteenth century that surgeons began to see the value of dissection to better understand and treat disease in their living patients. The public often still considered dissection unpleasant, and the method was strongly associated with criminality, the lucrative but disturbing business of grave robbing linking even esteemed medical practitioners with the criminal underworld .
This culminated in Britain with the trial of Burke and Hare in the 1820s, who were found guilty of murdering to supply their respected clients with subjects: literally, “murdering to dissect”: as Wordsworth wrote. However, the popularity of anatomical lectures thrived in the period and laypeople listened to debates about the source and nature of life: the hunt was on for the boundaries of life and death and whether humankind could recreate or reanimate living creatures. Percy Shelley attended lectures on this subject and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in the midst of a debate between two surgeons as to whether life was God-given, a literal divine spark, or whether anatomy alone held the key to life.
Moving on through the century, Stevenson published Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at a similar time of intense scientific scrutiny of the human condition. Jekyll and Hyde is, in a sense, an updating of the Frankenstein story, displaying contemporary anxieties focusing on the new structure of Victorian metropolitan society. It also focuses on contemporary medical debate: instead of the nature of life, it is the nature of the human psyche under interrogation. Stevenson, who briefly studied engineering before deciding upon a literary career, loosely based Jekyll and Hyde on two famous French case studies of dual personality whose “double lives” were widely discussed in French and British periodicals.
In the late nineteenth century, cases of dual personality were often attributed to bilateral brain hemisphere asymmetry. Victorian physiologists like Henry Holland, Arthur Wigan, and Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard argued that if one brain hemisphere were larger than the other, madness and criminality could result. Stunted intellect and immoral tendencies were said to appear in those with an enlarged right brain, where base emotions and instincts were thought to reside, while the let brain housed civilised human intellect. This is easily applied to Jekyll and his double, Hyde. The first is a man of science: he is rational and civilised but Hyde is driven by baser instinct, mostly rage.
It is also well known that theories of the ways in which the human race changed over time had been debated and contested throughout the nineteenth century. With industrialization forcing people into horrific living conditions, like the slums of Victorian London, there was cultural anxiety that perhaps evolution could, in fact, go the other way. Within the lower classes, anxious middle class Victorians saw moral degradation, sexual depravity, madness, criminality, and rampant disease which pointed, for some, to a reversal or degeneration of civilization: perhaps Hyde represents one of these degenerates, the eventual inevitable future of humanity?
Finally, at the turn of the century, Dracula thrilled and terrified its audience. Bram Stoker read Science and Pure Mathematics At Trinity College, Dublin. He also came from a family of successful physicians and obtained a master’s degree in science. I’ll be focusing on Stoker’s use of contemporary psychology in his writing: crime and madness are key themes in Victorian sensation fiction, and the lines between the two were often substantially blurred. The interest in psychological disorders increased throughout the nineteenth century.
Most obviously, in Dracula, we have the character of Renfield, the ‘zoophagous’ patient. (zoophagus means he eats live animals –insects and birds in this case). Dr. Seward’s diary entries begin with Renfield as a “case study”; he is described in these medical terms. Increasing numbers of psychiatric hospitals, or asylums, were built around London’s outskirts during the nineteenth century: Renfield resides in one of these. Stoker’s manuscript notes for Dracula demonstrate that he sought medical advice on head injuries from his brother, distinguished physician Sir William Thornley Stoker, then president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. This advice was used to lend clinical accuracy to the death scene of the insect-eating madman.
This demonstrates Stoker’s awareness of the current interest his reader would have had in psychology- particularly criminal psychology. This science was in its early days, and, as such, engaged a lay audience. As previously mentioned, a literate enthusiast could keep abreast of all the latest developments in this science by reading general interest magazines, and did not have to be a medical professional to have a decent knowledge of contemporary discoveries.
I will finish by examining a pseudoscientific discourse in regard to the description of the Count himself. Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), was an Italian Criminal Anthropologist and Stoker knew his book Uomo Delinquente (1876) in its French translation as L’Homme Criminel (1895). This book considers criminal ‘physiognomy’: the idea that a person’s character (and criminal tendencies) could be assessed by the structure of their facial features. Stoker drew from these pseudo-scientific texts for his description of Count Dracula, relating physiognomy to criminality and degeneration.
Science and literature are often seen as opposing hemispheres, but it is in the pages of fiction that writers expressed society’s darkest fears about the progress of medical science. Terms such as ‘franken-food’ are still used today to describe scientifically modified products, and the endless adaptations of all three works (Sean Bean in a Frankenstein TV show; at least two Frankenstein films in the last year; Jekyll and Hyde currently on ITV; new Dracula TV show and film in 2014) demonstrates that both the monsters and the anxieties they represented at the time are enduring.

A few paragraphs about you:

I was awarded my PhD in early nineteenth-century medicine and periodicals in 2014 and currently teach at Salford University and run the cafe in the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. I am the membership secretary for the British Society for Literature and Science, and I love gruesome medical stuff, monsters, and cute fluffy animals.

What free internet knowledge resources would you recommend to others if they wish to explore your chosen theme further?

Victorian Web – an encyclopaedic resource for Victorian literature and culture.
Wellcome Images – search ‘Historical’ for some really interesting photos and drawings from the medical archives.