Oh, the medical humanities! New books from Leicester historians
This year began with Dying for Victorian Medicine - English Anatomy and its Trade in the Dead Poor, c.1834 – 1929 by Dr Elizabeth Hurren in the School of Historical Studies.
Elizabeth has recently been appointed as a Reader in Medical Humanities and this, her latest book, explores the secret medical history of how 125,000 corpses supplied the dissection tables of medical schools at the largest teaching hospitals in Victorian England.
This 'lost property' is given a human face and historical voice for the first time, highlighting how the poorest were used to improve medical education and develop new scientific advances like X-ray technology. Beggars, the homeless, prostitutes, and street-walkers died almost every night on the Victorian streets. Most were, literally, frozen stiff by morning. On every street corner and outside public houses in the poorest districts, body-dealers picked up corpses and sold them on for profit. It cost sixpence for a cadaver in crime-ridden central Holborn – so-called ‘Little Ireland’ – and a few shillings on the streets of ‘Little Italy’.
One surprising aspect of the body trade featured recently on Michael Portillo’s BBC2 series Great British Railway Journeys series revealing how corpses were transported on ‘dead trains’ across the British railway network. In the poorest migrant communities, the business of anatomy was always vibrant in Victorian times.
Dr Hurren also joins her colleague Professor Steven King (Director of the Centre for Medical Humanities), and Andreas Gestrich (Director of the German Historical Institute, London) as an editor of Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe: Narratives of the Sick Poor, 1780-1938.
This volume of essays locates sickness as the key driver of poverty in European societies. With contributions on Austria, Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and Wales, it suggests that sickness was also one of the grey areas of European welfare systems.
Treating sickness could be expensive and might involve dealing with people who had caused their own ill health. Not to treat sickness might breach Christian, moral and legal duties and could result in higher future bills. In the context of this conundrum for officials, the sick poor could rhetoricise their sickness and use it to press their claims for welfare. Poverty and Sickness traces how contemporaries though of and talked about the sick poor but also how the poor themselves wrote about and used the rhetoric of sickness.
Dying for Victorian Medicine is published by Palgrave, and is available for a limited time at a special price of £20.99 only at the Blackwell’s Bookshop in the Wellcome Trust Bookshop on Euston Road in London (or the RRP of £65 from shop@le); while Poverty and Sickness in Modern Europe will be published by Continuum in June 2012 with a cover price of £19.99 - shop@le is already taking orders.