Book Review: Ill Composed

twitterlogoBRReview by Elisabeth Brander.

The matter of gender is an area in which medicine and culture are closely intertwined. In her debut monograph, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (Yale University Press, 2015), Olivia Weisser sets out to examine how gender affected patients’ experiences of illness in 17th and 18th century England. On the whole, she succeeds admirably. Ill Composed is a fascinating read that uses a variety of contemporary sources such as diaries, correspondence, and petitions to illustrate how the cultural expectations placed on early modern men and women influenced their perceptions of illness.  

23360229While the book leads off with an overview of the early modern medical landscape, Weisser does not spend much time discussing the finer details of humoral theory or the various treatments available to the sick. Instead, she moves swiftly into investigating how societal norms and illness interacted. In some areas there is an obvious connection. For example, in the early modern period, women were seen as being less rational and more emotional than men; it is therefore not surprising that women had adverse physical responses to emotional disturbances such as the death of a relative or a child falling ill, while men responded to stresses arising from disruptions in their economic circumstances. In other areas, the relationship between the two is less evident. One of Weisser’s more interesting observations focuses on how early modern conceptions of illness were influenced by certain types of writing. She points out that in women’s writing, the authors often adopted a spiritual tone and emphasized the suffering of others as a way to portray themselves as pious and humble. This trait led them to contextualize their illnesses by using the illnesses of others as a point of comparison. In contrast, men were more likely to use their own bodies as points of reference. Their writing tended to focus on closely observing specific sets of circumstances – for example, changes in the natural world, or their business accounts – and this analytical approach is reflected in their descriptions of physical ailments.   

The majority of Weisser’s sources were created by members of the literate upper class, and she states outright that this does create a somewhat biased view of her subject matter. The last chapter, however, is dedicated to the experiences of the lower classes, and is based on the petitions the destitute submitted to their parishes in order to claim charitable support due to ill health. These petitions reveal the classist aspects of illness. While the wealthy could muse about the spiritual implications of their ill health, the poor often reduced it to economic terms – for example, a broken leg could impact their ability to work, and force them to seek financial aid. Many of these petitions also emphasized that their need was only temporary, and that they had always been productive members of the parish. The need for the poor to prove that they were deserving of parish support, and not simply idle, is a concern that remains distressingly relevant even today.

Ill Composed is certainly a work that can be classified as history of medicine, but it also sheds light on how many aspects of early modern life were entwined. Religious life, the history of reading and writing, and economic history are some of the threads woven into Weissler’s text. While it will ultimately hold the most appeal for historians of medicine and gender, it is also a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the early modern world.

Elisabeth Brander is the rare book librarian at the Bernard Becker Medical Library in St. Louis.  She enjoys the sense of wonder that working with rare books brings her.  They also provide an endless source of inspiration for her endeavors into creative writing, which often incorporate aspects of medical and print history.

Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air

BookReviewLogoReview by Tom Bragg.

At its most interesting, the late Paul Kalanithi’s bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016) is a book about language. It is not, as many reviews would seem to indicate, an introduction to medical humanities, lacking both a primer’s organization of ideas and an author’s inclination to educate the reader. Rather, the book presents readers with the startling idea (to those uninitiated in the field) that science and humanities can be linked, can inform each other, can benefit both patient and practitioner in so applied and grimly pragmatic a field as neurosurgery. This it achieves through its harrowing narrative and by repeatedly contemplating the miraculous powers of language, “an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion” (39).

25899336Always interesting, at times gut-wrenching, When Breath Becomes Air is an account of a surgeon’s life and training bracketed by a diagnosis of his cancer and death, and ending with an epilogue by his wife, Lucy. The proximity of the two ideas—the healer stricken, the health-giver succumbing to illness—sets up the parameters for our reading of the life; we are constantly aware that this is a narrative race against time and, as though we were hearing a deathbed confession, that knowledge prepares us to read with sympathy and extra awareness. Without such expectations, Kalanithi’s early memories and even his tone might convey only a dully impressive catalog of achievements. He seems alternately to overlook and foreground a voice of privilege in his recounting of juvenile literary interests (“Hamlet bore me a thousand times through the usual adolescent crises” [27]), college preparatory experiences, acceptance into Stanford. The young student, sipping whiskey and chatting with authors, roaming the English countryside while part of a History and Philosophy of Science program at Cambridge, finds himself “increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them”; eager for such direct experience, he says, he was heading back to the States and “going to Yale for medical school” (43). It’s hard not to be aware of the irony: the young acolyte hungering for life-and-death reality, ensconced in systems and experiences that seem to shield him from those realities. Continue reading “Book Review: When Breath Becomes Air”

Book Review: This Mortal Coil

BookReviewLogoReview by Stephanie Hudson.

In her new book, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), Fay Bound Alberti writes that “our bodies are products of the stories we tell” (19). And this is the work Bound Alberti takes up, to explore stories of bodies and how these stories impact our embodied experience. She works to trace, and perhaps complicate, origins and potential futures of stories of bodies, with particular focus on women’s bodies.

26401367Bound Alberti is a cultural historian whose work is situated within histories of medicine and the body. Her previous work includes Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotions (Oxford University Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Longman History Today book of the year award. Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she is an honorary senior research fellow. Through a Western lens, This Mortal Coil is located in Britain, and in part, North America.

Bound Alberti’s work in This Mortal Coil was motivated by an interest “in looking at the body as an assemblage of parts, and why it was that some parts take on particular significance and meanings at certain points in history” (206). Each chapter focuses on a different body part—spine, breast, genitalia, heart, brain, skin, tongue, and gut—taking the reader on a journey “from inside out, from our very core to the surface of our body and the boundaries between self and other” (16). Continue reading “Book Review: This Mortal Coil”

Book Review: The Clamorgans

BookReviewLogoReview by David Kilgannon

Julie Winch opens her book The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (Hill & Wang, 2011) bemoaning the failure of Charles Dickens to visit the Clamorgan family’s “bathing saloon” during his visit to St. Louis, Missouri in 1842. If the Victorian novelist had attended, Winch speculates, there may have been another Dickens novel as the story of the Clamorgan clan provided a range of the archetypally Dickensian tropes of “hapless orphans, wily villains, women seduced and betrayed by the men they trusted, imposter of one kind or another, with an unscrupulous lawyer or two thrown in the mix” (3). Comparing an actual family to a novelist’s work sets a high standard for any tale, but is more  than surpassed in Winch’s engrossing narrative history of one biracial American family.

10308115Through the life and times of the Clamorgan family of St. Louis, Winch traces the development of the idea of race and its role in family life, the law and broader American society from 1781 to the early decades of the twentieth century. The narrative begins with the clan’s progenitor, Jacques Clamorgan, whose uncertain origins and even murkier ethics set the stage for more than a century of contention. Specifically, this tension centred on Jacques’ questionable investment in large tracts of land in the upper Louisiana territory alongside the fact that “over the years he lived openly with a succession of black women, all of them at some point his slaves, and several of these women bore him children” (39). Clamorgan’s provision for these children, his mixed-race illegitimate heirs, went on to produce more than a century of often bitter litigation. Winch is sympathetic but clear sighted in showing how Jacques’ less than scrupulous business methods, as well as the racist sentiment inherent within the United States’ justice system, conspired to leave a legacy of unfulfilled riches that occupied generations of Clamorgan’s descendants. Continue reading “Book Review: The Clamorgans”