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Medicine and Literature: 1650-1850

ENGL 085.401
also offered as: BCHE 085
MW 5-6:30 pm

What was it like to live with a serious illness in the eighteenth century?  How have our cultural understandings of sickness and health changed over time?  And how do historical images and literary representations of doctors, nurses, and sick people reveal and affect cultural assumptions about disease and medical authority?  This course offers a comprehensive study of significant changes and continuities in the history of medicine, alongside works of literature that exemplify the shifting notions of the doctor and sickness in the Western medical tradition.  In particular, we will focus on fictional sources (poetry, short stories, novels, and films) as well as on nonfictional accounts (journals, diaries, and documentaries) that explore the emotional and somatic aspects of conditions such as cancer, plague, hysteria, syphilis, and madness.  As a transhistorical study of Western medicine from classical influences through the innovations of Paris Medicine, we will be concerned with the power of narratives to bring coherence and meaning to lives at moments of great physical and emotional crisis.  Inspired by recent historiographical trends to study the history of medicine from the bottom up, this course moves away from a methodology that emphasizes the “great men of science” to one that centers on the concerns of sick persons.  In reading works of literature by authors such as John Milton, Molière, Frances Burney, Daniel Defoe, and Dorothy Wordsworth, we will also study contemporaneous medical topics, including quackery, the history of midwifery, humoural theories of the body, advancements in autopsy, the elevation of the professional surgeon, and the clinical gaze.  Assignments will include two short papers, a midterm, and a final exam.  A second half to this course (“Medicine in Literature and Film, 1850-2000”) will be offered in spring, but each course can be taken separately.

fulfills requirements