In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medicine

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Doctors and Surgeons
  • Illness
  • Degeneration and Eugenics

Victorian Literature Medicine
Andrew Scott Mangham
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 March 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0080


The 19th century saw enormous demands on the field of medical inquiry. That period saw urban development and international travel bring medicine face-to-face with new and exhausting pressures. Towns and cities may have been awash with disease, death, and primitive medical practice, but, in the period’s scientific literature, doctors perceived themselves to be meeting such pressures with inventive and ground-breaking discoveries that had wide-reaching impacts. These developments understandably had an impression on the shape and quality of the period’s fiction: many fictional productions of the Victorian era featured ideas and influences from the world of medicine. Although the history of medicine is a venerable and bewilderingly large area of research, critical combinations of medicine and literature form part of a relatively new field of interdisciplinary analysis. This entry is primarily focused on works that combine history of clinical science with literary analysis, but historical works that either touch upon literary issues and/or are central to exploring relevant avenues are also included.

General Overviews

In keeping with the period’s penchant for labeling and compartmentalizing things, Victorian medicine expanded and ramified rapidly. At the start of the 19th century general practitioners would find themselves treating a massive range of ills and disorders but by the fin de siècle, and in response to urban migration among other pressures, medical expertise had divided itself into number of “-ologies” including gynecology, psychology, neurology, cardiology, and so on. Trying to understand the history of medicine in the 19th century is a perplexing experience; there are hundreds of strands that, quite feasibly, one could spend a lifetime investigating. Caldwell 2004 offers a useful account of the similarities between medical and fictional narratives in the 19th century, but before considering an interdisciplinary study of literature and medicine, it helps to consider a number of volumes that outline the era’s major medical developments in a succinct and accessible way. A good starting point is the Brought to Life website. The best book of this nature is Porter 1997, though Porter 1996, Porter 2001, and Porter 2002 are undoubtedly helpful. Duffin 2000 and Duin and Sutcliffe 1992 also provide strong and useful introductions to the history of medicine.

  • Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine.

    An excellent starting point for new students of the history of medicine. The website is divided into themes and topics, people, objects, and techniques and technologies, and it also offers a comprehensive timeline.

  • Caldwell, Janis McLarren. Literature and Medicine in Nineteenth-Century Medicine: from Mary Shelley to George Eliot. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    A study that cleverly demonstrates the common methods of empiricist research utilized by 19th-century doctors and writers of fiction.

  • Duffin, Jacalyn, History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

    Arranged into studies of different forms of medical discovery, this book offers a history of clinical practice as a research discipline.

  • Duin, Nancy, and Jenny Sutcliffe. A History of Medicine: From Prehistory to the Year 2020. London and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

    A rather expensive, yet useful, single-volume account of the history of medicine. Duin and Sutcliffe demonstrate how many of today’s medical marvels are based on “the first fumblings for knowledge of the witch doctors and shamans of pre-history.”

  • Porter, Roy, ed. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    An accessible and well-balanced collection of essays. Covering a wide range of important issues, such as disease, madness, and drugs, this book offers an excellent starting point for the historian of medicine.

  • Porter, Roy. “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind”: A Medical History of Humanity. London: Harper Collins, 1997.

    An admirable and encyclopedic history of medicine, ranging from prehistoric times to the contemporary period. Concentrates on how medicine has responded to certain pressures (mainly devastating diseases) throughout the ages.

  • Porter, Roy. Bodies Politic: Disease, Death and the Doctors in Britain, 1650–1914. London: Reaktion, 2001.

    In this book Porter ambitiously demonstrates how the body—as a medical subject to disease, disability or pain—has been central to human understanding of “all meaning” from 1700 to 2000.

  • Porter, Roy. Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine. London: Penguin, 2002.

    Based largely on the contents of Porter 1997, this book offers a short and engaging introduction to the history of medicine.

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