Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Trinity Term 2019
A man conducts an alchemical experiment with an alembic. Coloured stipple engraving by J. Chapman, 1805, after R. Corbould. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.
Tuesday 14 May 2019 (Week 3)
Dr Jim Mussell, University of Leeds
Binding and Embodiment: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and the Book
This paper considers the role of embodiment in the work of the physicist and spiritualist Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) through two very different books. The first is the visitor book from Mariemont, the Lodges’ house in Birmingham from 1901-1920; the second is Lodge’s book Raymond (1916), which details his ongoing relationship with his dead son, Raymond, killed the previous year at Ypres. These two early twentieth-century books have much to tell us about how Lodge, then at the peak of his fame, began to seem increasingly Victorian. They also reveal details of a social life that radically involved the living and the dead.
Best know for his work in wireless telegraphy in the 1890s , Lodge spent his career trying to understand the intangible and imponderable. An adherent of the ether, defending it until his death in 1941, Lodge was committed to a universe in which matter was nothing but etheric motion. The ether provided an ontological basis for both psychical and physical phenomena as well the epistemological ground on which to reconcile science, spiritualism, and religion. While Lodge’s philosophy proved remarkably popular in the first decades of the twentieth century, establishing him as not just a scientific authority but probably the best-known scientist of his day, it also made him seem curiously out of time. In the years after the second world war Lodge’s popularity became a problem and Lodge himself a Victorian sage who lived too long.
The two books, in their different ways, are an attempt to document social relations by locating individuals in time and space. The visitor book records the range of people the Lodges hosted at Mariemont, whether visiting dignitaries or the extended Lodge family, scientists or mediums. Raymond, on the other hand, gives details of Raymond’s life before his death then transcripts of encounters with his spirit on the other side. Whereas the visitor book’s list of names testifies to the intangible connections that constitute social life, Raymond desparately seeks to situate the personality of Raymond somewhere in the ether, surviving on with integrity in a medium that should not permit survival in such a form. Whereas the pages of the visitor book consitute a chronological narrative as people come, go, and come again; Raymond offers the book itself as a surrogate body that could ensure he was close at hand. Both books can help us understand Lodge’s reputation, at the time and afterwards. Both books, too, can help us understand how Lodge recognised identity in a universe in which we were all always connected.
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 1, St Anne’s College
Tuesday 28 May 2019 (Week 5)
Dr Heather Tilley, Birkbeck College, University of London
Nervous mimicry: performing paralysis in nineteenth-century culture
The nineteenth century marked the emergence of neurology as a specialist clinical discipline, with research and practice identifying a range of neurodegenerative conditions with distinct nosological categories, and new therapies to deal with them. The nervous system was also however recognised to be particularly susceptible to influence by the mind and emotions, with the mid-nineteenth century neurologist Charles Handfield Jones stressing that as ‘all the passions and emotion … perceptions and recollections’ operate through it, ‘is it any wonder that exhaustion should frequently befall this delicate and complex machinery’ (1864)? In this paper, I will assess the ways in which forms of paralysis were variously categorised as organic or functional diseases from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, and consider how functional paralysis – or ‘nervous mimicry’, as it was described by the physician James Paget – became a condition of increasing medical and cultural attention from the 1850s onwards, signalling particular anxieties concerning the relationship between mental, moral, and bodily health and capacity.
Notably, neurological debate touched on the extent to which patients (both male and female) might be ‘shamming’ or performing their conditions, replicating wider social and cultural debates in which the paralysed body was a contradictory object of both moral sympathy and suspicion. I will explore how paralysis was associated by an anxious questioning concerning both the authenticity and productivity of embodied identity in a range of nineteenth-century cultural texts. In the fourth volume of London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2), Henry Mayhew and his journalist colleagues are troubled by the status of crippled beggars, worried about those who might be ‘imposters’ whilst also recognising the need for people to perform their disabilities to elicit alms. In his novel Little Dorrit (1855-57), Dickens reinforced the practice of imagining and representing paralysed bodies within an inherently suspicious framework, as motor impairment was indexically linked to moral corruption in the depiction of Mrs Clennam. The poet Eugene Lee-Hamilton also described paralysis as loss in his collection Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894), in which he lamented how ‘my manhood goes where goes the song /Of pent-up bird, the cry of crippled things’. However, the development of Lee-Hamilton’s own writing career during a prolonged period of illness – understood to be psychological in origin – points also to the generative and productive possibilities of paralysis.
Paralysis: Apparatus for the treatment of paralysis. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College
Tuesday 11 June 2019 (Week 7)
Professor Sharon Ruston, University of Lancaster
Victor Frankenstein, the Chemist
Recognition that matter could change state without changing its chemical properties was a crucial development in late eighteenth-century science. Ice, water, and steam were understood as the same combination of elements in different states of matter. This led chemists such as Humphry Davy and John Dalton to believe that no new elements could be created and none could be destroyed. Instead, matter was continually changing and transforming into new states of being. In this talk, I’ll look at Victor Frankenstein’s training and achievements in chemistry and his investigation into the chemical transformation that takes place ‘from life to death’, as well as the novel’s more general interest in mutability.
5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College
Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking required.