Literature and Medicine: 1650 to Present
As we live through a time of epidemiological distress now, medical history and medical narratives can be invaluable resources for us. This course addresses questions that inform and complicate our abilities to navigate the medical world. 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 short films) as well as nonfictional accounts (journals, diaries, and medical texts) that explore the emotional and somatic aspects of conditions such as cancer, plague, blindness, madness, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and gender and sexual non-conformity. As a transhistorical study of Western medicine from Classical influences through the innovations of Paris Medicine into modern science-based 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 scholastic practices in disability studies and history of medicine to study the subject of illness 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, Henrik Ibsen, Theodore Roethke, Raymond Carver, and Audre Lorde, 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, the dilemmas of racially-based scientific methods, the rise of the teaching hospital, and the notion of the ‘clinical gaze.’ Assignments will include one short paper, a visual exercise, a midterm, and a final exam.