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Writing Doctors: Representation and Medical Personality ca.1660-1832

Northumbria University’s Department of Humanities is currently home to a three-year Leverhulme Trust major-funded research project, ‘Writing Doctors: Representation and Medical Personality ca.1660–1832’. 

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This project is the third consecutive major funding success for the department since 2006 focused specifically on topics of medicine, literature and culture of the long eighteenth century. ‘Writing Doctors’ examines the explosion of writing in English by medical men and women in Britain between 1660 and 1832, and asks: 'How was British culture changed and in what significant ways as a consequence of the language of medical expression moving from Latin to English towards the end of the seventeenth century?' When doctors, surgeons, apothecaries, midwives, and other women practitioners entered the publishing marketplace, they found themselves expressing more than medical matters. Issues of personality, celebrity, and the creative expression of the self (including female) were foregrounded. What impact did these factors have upon British culture and consciousness?

Caption: Operators letting blood from the arm of a woman in a room crowded with pharmacy jars. Credit: Heemskerck, Egbert van, 1634 or 1635–1704. Wellcome Collection

Our team of researchers is applying a range of dynamic approaches to exploring these questions, bringing together literary methodologies with medical and print histories. The project’s Principal Investigator, Professor Clark Lawlor, is currently working on medical creativity, particularly in the poetry and medical works of physicians, and is leading the field of literary medical humanities with his two-volume collection of essays, Literature and Medicine, co-edited with Professor Andrew Mangham (University of Reading). The work of our Co-Investigators Emeritus Professor Allan Ingram, Dr Helen Williams and Dr Leigh Wetherall-Dickson is also producing exciting results. Professor Ingram’s upcoming monograph Swift, Pope and the Doctors examines the lives and works of eighteenth-century authors, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. His book offers new insights into these authors’ experiences of managing their own health, their relationships with medical doctors and how these factors shaped their writing. Dr Williams’ research focuses on links between medicine and popular print, exploring the roles played by printers and publishers in influencing new understandings of health. Dr Wetherall-Dickson’s work interrogates ideas of celebrity and self-fashioning that surrounded medical management in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Caption: A mother in bed after having given birth; the midwife showing the baby to the father. Coloured stipple engraving, ca. 1800. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Our project also supports early career development, with particular emphasis on shaping next-generation scholarship. Project Research Fellow Dr Ashleigh Blackwood’s upcoming monograph, Everybody's Business: Co-Creating Reproductive Health, Literature, and Print Culture, 1650–1800, challenges traditional accounts of eighteenth-century midwifery and reproductive medicine, arguing for the significant roles played by both medical and creative literature in the transformation of these specialist discourses. Laurence Sullivan, our postgraduate researcher, is working on a thesis entitled ‘“Every Woman Her Own Doctress”: Literary Portrayals of Lay Woman Practitioners on the Stage and Page in Eighteenth-Century Britain’. His thesis explores how eighteenth-century literature represents domestic medicine in ways that have gone unnoticed to date. Further to these individual and team interests, our researchers are collaborating with scholars from across the world to produce a range of edited collections and special edition journals.

The project engages with scholarly audiences regularly, as team members offer conference papers and panels to events organised by a range of learned societies including the British and International Societies for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS and ISECS), the International Laurence Sterne Foundation and the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism. Public events have included Georgians’ Marvellous Medicine and the Sex Education Zine Café as part of the Being Human National Festival of the Humanities

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