Literature, Science and Medicine

A number of staff and research students in the School of English have interests in the relationships between literature, science and medicine. This work draws on the School’s reputation for interdisciplinary research, and our collective interests in questioning the traditional establishment and the separation of these intimately linked areas into discrete disciplines.

We regularly host reading groups, conferences, and seminar series. Recent events of particular relevance include an AHRC Doctoral Training workshop on ‘Science and Gender’, and a seminar series event on pathology and anatomy. The School is also centrally involved in the provision of an MA in Medical Humanities.

Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries

This project brings together historical and literary research in the nineteenth century with contemporary scientific practice, looking at the ways in which patterns of popular communication and engagement in nineteenth-century science periodicals can offer models for current practice. The research is particular timely since the digital revolution, and open-access publishing, are about to change forever the processes and forms of scientific communication and exchange. The project is based at the Universities of Oxford and Leicester, in partnership with three of our most significant scientific institutions: the Natural History Museum; the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons; and the Royal Society.

Our postdoctoral Research Associates draw on these institution’s historic collections, uncovering the extraordinary range of largely forgotten science journals of the nineteenth century, from the Magazine of Natural History (one of Darwin’s favourites), to Recreative Science, or Hardwicke’s Science Gossip: An Illustrated Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature. They also work with the institutions’ science communities, addressing questions about the creation and circulation of knowledge in the digital age, and looking at innovative ways of breaking through the public/professional divide. Drawing on the historical research, the project is developing new tools to enable better systems of exchange between professional science, and the growing army of volunteers involved in ‘citizen science’. In particular, we are working with the Zooniverse platform, which has over 800,000 participants who contribute to projects from astrophysics to climate science (

The Constructing Scientific Communities project is funded by an AHRC large grant in the Science in Culture theme.

Men in Nursing and the Victorian Gentle Man

Interested in professional and non-professional care in the nineteenth century, this area of research investigates masculine tactility through the long-occluded figure of the male nurse.

The research draws upon a varied archive including conventionally literary texts, life writing, sanitation and public health debates, and material on the regulation and staffing of hospitals and lunatic asylums. One aspect of this work focuses on the medical contribution made by soldier orderlies during the Crimean war, as part of an AHRC funded project, 'Military Men of Feeling'.

Reading and Newsgathering in Samuel Pepys’s Circle

As part of research on reading behaviour in the late seventeenth century, this project takes in the reception and circulation of scientific works in print and manuscript. The principal sources are the diaries and unpublished papers of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) and his network of contacts.

As an early member (and subsequently a president) of the Royal Society, Pepys sought to keep himself informed about scientific developments and the latest technologies, particularly those relating to seamanship. His medical problems – especially with poor sight – also led to a keen interest in medical cures and in new devices (such as optical and lighting technologies) which could provide solutions. As a result, his papers allow us to understand mechanisms for the exchange of scientific ideas and also to track seventeenth-century developments in the technologies to support readers.

Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

This project explores the famous claim of nineteenth-century paleontologists that, from just a single bone, they could identify and sometimes even reconstruct previously unknown prehistoric creatures. Such extraordinary displays of predictive reasoning were accomplished through the law of correlation, which proposed that each element of an animal corresponds mutually with all the others. Although this law, which was pivotal in the development of the new science of paleontology, was formulated by Georges Cuvier amidst the tumult of post-revolutionary Paris, it was in Britain and America that it took particular hold. Paleontologists such as William Buckland and Richard Owen were heralded as scientific wizards who could resurrect the extinct denizens of the ancient past from merely a glance at a fragmentary bone. The project examines the distinctive anglophone engagement with Cuvier’s renowned method of reconstruction across the whole of the long nineteenth century. It considers how the law of correlation was successively repackaged by different audiences, including those across the Atlantic and in the furthest outposts of the British Empire, and was used for diverse and often contrary purposes by, amongst many others, Anglican Oxford dons, atheistic plebeian radicals, authors of serial novels, and Confederate supporters of slavery during the American Civil War. Even after the law of correlation had been decisively refuted by Thomas Huxley and other expert practitioners in the 1850s, claims about Cuvier’s unerring and almost prophetic powers continued to circulate in works of science popularization as well as in fiction and poetry. The remarkable afterlife of Cuvier’s famous law had important consequences for both the career of Huxley and the development of paleontology in the late nineteenth century.

A monograph called Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America is forthcoming from University of Chicago Press. The research for the project was assisted by grants from the British Academy and the British Society for the History of Science, and the writing of the monograph was completed during a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship.

Women Surgeons in Britain, 1860-1918

This project examines women’s place in the surgical revolution of the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond, and looks closely at the sort of operations women performed with reference to hospital records, case notes and medical research papers. It also investigates the controversies provoked by the female surgeon in this period, both through the disdain of some medical men and disapproval from within the increasing community of women doctors.

Women Surgeons in Britain was funded by a two-year Research Leave Award from the Wellcome Trust (2012-2014). A monograph with the same title is forthcoming. Other relevant publications include articles in Social History of Medicine and Medical History.

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