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DISEASES Report Summary

Project ID: 340121
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Mid-Term Report Summary - DISEASES (The Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives)

In our current ‘Information Age’ we suffer as never before, it is claimed, from the stresses of an overload of information, and the speed of global networks. The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the nineteenth century. The medic James Crichton Browne spoke in 1860 of the ‘velocity of thought and action’ now required, and of the stresses imposed on the brain forced to process in a month more information ‘than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime’. This project explores the phenomena of stress and overload, and other disorders associated in the nineteenth century with the problems of modernity, as expressed in the literature, science and medicine of the period, tracking the circulation of ideas across these diverse areas. Taking its framework from Diseases of Modern Life (1876) by the medical reformer, Benjamin Ward Richardson, it explores ‘diseases from worry and mental strain’, as experienced in the professions, ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as the abuse of alcohol and narcotics, and also diseases from environmental pollution. The study returns to the holistic, integrative vision of the Victorians, as expressed in the science and in the great novels of the period, exploring the connections drawn between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease. Particular areas of focus include the rise of occupational health in relation to new technologies; diseases associated with particular professions; alcohol and drug addiction amidst the middle classes; travel for health; education and over-pressure in the classroom; the development of phobias and nervous disorders; the imaginative construction of utopias and dystopias, in relation to health and disease; and sound, music and therapy. The project aims to break through the compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental or literary history, and offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity facing us in the twenty-first century.

Early findings suggest striking parallels between the Victorian age and our own. The technology might be different, but the language of complaint and concern is remarkably similar. Thus financiers complained of the impossibility of coping when the telegraph brought almost instantaneous news of changing stock prices across the globe, and many were deemed to have suffered complete nervous breakdowns due to the pressures of a ‘Black Friday’. There were also, however, positive, and innovative responses to the new technologies. Many doctors, for example, were enthusiastic early adopters of the technology associated with the telephone, using it in quite surprising ways, with numerous and ingenious inventions designed both to listen to the inner workings of the body, and to make consultation at a distance possible. In another strand we have explored the development of ideas of phobia, tracking the ways in which literary depictions of states of fear and obsessive compulsion formed part of the medical framework for the emerging diagnoses of phobic states. The literary and the medical were intricately linked in this sphere. Our work on pollution and the environment has been wide-ranging, exploring utopic visions of an ideal city (which contain many elements for the ‘green’ agenda now emerging in contemporary politics). We have also traced, however, the ways in which the emerging health resorts and spas quickly came to represent health hazards themselves, due to over-rapid growth, and inadequate regulation. Commuters, moving out of London to escape industrial pollution, were also deemed to be intensifying their health problems by subjecting their bodies to the pressures and anxieties of a daily train journey. Many of these issues clearly resonate with us today. While remaining alert to the very decisive differences between the two periods, our research allows us to explore in detail how an earlier century responded to the challenges of ‘modern life’.

The project is based at the University of Oxford, and is run by PI Professor Sally Shuttleworth. For further information about the team, our research and public events, see our website where you can also sign up for our blog and twitter account.


Gill Wells, (Head of European Team)
Tel.: +44 1865 289800
Fax: +44 1865 289801
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