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Cancer, modernity, and decline in fin-de-siècle Britain

In this chapter, Agnes Arnold-Forster takes up the interplay between medical understandings of cancer and broader social and economic shifts, which, she notes, have given rise to cancer’s fluid metaphoric identity. The chapter situates the ‘new cancer epidemic’ of the fin de siècle within a climate of widespread anxiety about the vitality of the British Empire, and concerns about imperial over-reaching, as well as fears of the revolt of an apparently unruly, ungovernable, and newly enfranchised urban population. The metaphoric associations of the cancerous growth resonated in many colonial contexts, as doctors who reflected on medicine in non-European contexts became particularly engaged with the conceptualisation of certain races as more or less prone to the disease, and therefore as more or less ‘modern’. Commentators on the domestic ‘cancer epidemic’ perceived its presence as an unintended consequence of the public health successes of industrial modernity, such as lower infant mortality, increasing hospitalisation, and sanitary reforms. In these parallel, but conflicting, constructions of cancer as a pathology of progress, the disease itself emerged as a symptom of modern life that nonetheless manifested a national deterioration in health.

in Progress and pathology

In this chapter, Mikko Myllykangas considers the phenomenon of suicide as discursively connected both to the conditions of modern life and to social degeneration and decline at the fin de siècle. In Finland, the principal case study of the chapter, the psychiatrist Thiodolf Saelan explicitly attributed the slowly increasing suicide rates in Finland to modern urban lifestyles, in an effort to accentuate the cultural differences between so-called ‘modernised’ Western nations, and other cultures. Myllykangas interrogates such claims in the context of Finnish society, which, he notes, was at a very different stage of industrial transition than many of its Western European counterparts. Analysis of the divergent constructions of the role of modernity in relation to suicide ultimately illustrate the ways in which physiological and psychological problems of the period were being constituted in relation to their social contexts and to the changing dynamics of urbanisation and industrialisation.

in Progress and pathology
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The hygienic utopia in Jules Verne, Camille Flammarion, and William Morris

Manon Mathias analyses new attitudes towards disease and hygiene in the nineteenth century in the context of the unprecedented growth of cities in this period, which provoked a parallel rise in diseases from human excrement (such as typhus, typhoid fever, and cholera). This analysis is placed in the context of new scientific understandings of bacteria that began to develop in the late nineteenth century, as the realisation that germs spread through human contact led to an acute fear of dirt and an increased obsession with cleanliness. As human excrement came to dominate discussions of public health and disease, fictions of the period provoked and explored imaginative extensions of these concerns. Jules Verne’s Cinq cents millions de la Bégum (1880), Camille Flammarion’s Uranie (1889), and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) each created compelling fantasies of alternative, faeces-free societies in which bodily waste and dirt have been eradicated. These somewhat anodyne and sterile hygienic utopias, however, also reveal the potential unintended consequences of extreme cleanliness. Implicated in the rational rejection of disease and infection, Mathias argues, is a rejection of human physicality, intimacy, and passion.

in Progress and pathology
Fatigue and the fin de siècle

In this chapter, Steffan Blayney focuses on the ongoing tension between the overwhelmingly fast pace of industrial modernity, and the natural rhythms and pulses of the finite energies of the human body. Demands for increased velocity of thought and action inculcated a variety of concerns about modernity and its limits, and about social, political, and cultural decline. Fatigue emerged in the latter decades of the century as a particularly disturbing symptom of modernity, representing both its degrading effects and its immanent limits. Blayney examines constructions of fatigue at the end of the nineteenth century, as both scientific object and cultural metaphor, situating this condition alongside other such fin-de-siècle signifiers as decadence and degeneration. In this context, Blayney approaches fatigue as the bodily manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics, as well as a critical part of the new medical terminology that proliferated in order to designate the exhausting effects of modern life. It was expressive of the inevitable dissipation of energy that accompanied the performance of work in this period. Paradoxically, an epidemic of fatigue appeared both as the main obstacle to the progressive development of industrial civilisation, and as the most indubitable evidence of its ascendancy.

in Progress and pathology
Daktar Binodbihari Ray Kabiraj and the metaphorics of the nineteenth-century Ayurvedic body

‘Western’ medicine is not the only tradition to have engaged with constructions of modernity. During the nineteenth century, so-called ‘traditional’ medicines around the globe were also forced to confront the notion of modernity in all its diversity. The Ayurveda tradition of South Asia was one such medical practice, and at the core of this chapter by Projit Bihari Mukharji is a demonstration of the modernity of Ayurveda. The interplay between Ayurvedic practice and social, cultural, and economic change in nineteenth-century South Asia was, he shows, twofold. Ayurvedic physicians such as Daktar Binodbihari Ray Kabiraj not only developed a self-conscious discourse about modernity and its effects upon the body and mind, but they explicitly drew upon the language of modernity in order to radically reconfigure the Ayurvedic body. Railways and telegraphs, for these physicians, were not simply new material realities; they were also a rich ideational resource that encouraged and inspired them to think in new ways about the human body and its operations.

in Progress and pathology
Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People and the hybrid pathways of Chinese modernity

In this chapter, Alice Tsay tracks the global history of a patent medicine known as Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People, from its invention in Canada in 1866 to promotional spreads in Chinese-language publications in early twentieth-century Shanghai. By the time they made their appearance in Shanghai in the early decades of the twentieth century, Dr Williams’ pills were widely derided in England and North America as an archetypal example of quackery, with commentators identifying the pills’ continued ubiquity as a sign of the public’s refusal to recognise scientific progress. Foreign advertisements for Dr Williams’ pills, however, engaged with notions of modernity from within their own social and cultural framework. Rather than simply translating their Anglo-American counterparts, Shanghai advertisements for the pills came to articulate a distinctly Chinese vision of twentieth-century society in their depiction of new gender roles, their absorption of non-Western medical discourse, and their use of baihua, the emerging vernacular. The discourse of the modern, in the case of this consumer product, was carefully tailored to its audience, and was part of an ongoing dialogue between producers and consumers.

in Progress and pathology
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The ‘pathology’ of childhood in late nineteenth-century London

Using the records of children admitted to the Church of England-sponsored Waifs and Strays Society as its principal source material, the chapter constructs a new paradigm that seeks to better understand the lives of poor and disabled children, youngsters who were thought to be beyond the clutches of state improvement and impervious to the evangelical efforts of reformers and rescuers. It does so by exploring nineteenth-century ideas about childhood disability, and how these reinforced and challenged perceptions of what it meant to be a ‘modern’ child in nineteenth-century England. The key years in establishing the pathologically different childhood as a distinct conceptual entity were, the chapter shows, between 1870 and 1914, which was the height of child rescue efforts. Detailed examinations of family testimony and institutional responses during this period demonstrate that the romantic desire to ‘protect’ children, which was imposed on urban, working families by an evangelical and reforming middle class, was the very impetus that created the notion of the ‘imperfect’ youngster who did not, or could not, conform to the enlightenment ideal of modern childhood.

in Progress and pathology
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The introduction demonstrates that nineteenth-century advances in the fields of technology, science, and medicine, while clearly constituting ‘progress’ for some, nonetheless prompted deep concern about the problems and pathologies that could potentially be induced by modern life. An increasing number of references to the problems of ‘modern times’ and the ‘wear and tear’ of modern life can be traced throughout the nineteenth-century medical and general press across national boundaries and cultures, in nations with distinctive politics, practices, and body imaginaries. Taking up the concept of ‘modernity’ as a self-referential concept, employed and applied within any given social and cultural moment by those seeking to express what they regard as new conditions in the social order, we outline the central aim of our volume: to track a range of anxieties and varieties of experience, as they were expressed and explored in the literature, science, and medicine of the time. The volume explores their impact upon social, cultural, and medical formations of the mind and body.

in Progress and pathology

In this chapter, Torsten Riotte takes up the interaction between medical and political spheres in the context of nineteenth-century Germany, and poses questions about accountability, medical negligence, and the nature of individual and collective responsibility in relation to accidents. Beginning with the first recorded court case in 1811, when a doctor at the Berlin Charité hospital sued a colleague over the death of a female patient, Riotte draws upon the files of the so-called medical commissions (medical advisory boards to ministries of the interior in the German states) in order to analyse the professional and public debate that ensued and to engage in a discussion of medical negligence as an aspect of professional accountability. The emergence of medical courts of honour from the mid-1870s onwards, and the complementary development of liability insurance for doctors, illuminate the shifting moral, economic, and social structures in which medical practices were embedded.

in Progress and pathology
The Fowlers and modern brain disorder

In this chapter, Kristine Swenson turns to popular reform movements which arose in response to what mainstream medicine considered largely innate, unchangeable conditions. Drawing on the emergence of the American Fowler family – led by the brothers Orson and Lorenzo, their sister, Charlotte, and her husband Samuel Wells – as her central case study, Swenson considers the Fowlers’ empire of phrenological lecture tours, publishing, and therapeutics as a practice that not only kept phrenology in the public eye long after its dismissal from scientific practice, but also responded to the perceived ills of industrialised capitalism by touting progressive self-improvement and self-care. The Fowlers exploited the potential of phrenology as a form of practical self-help allied to hydropathy, dietetics, vegetarianism, dress reform, and temperance. As cultural fears of degeneration and race suicide spread, and the middle classes were increasingly seen as subject to the ‘modern illnesses’ of neurasthenia and dyspepsia, the Fowlers sought means of facilitating social and personal adjustment to the demands of a newly industrialised society. Their reform-oriented late-century phrenology promised personal improvement through proper living habits and ‘exercising’ of the faculties, and seemed to mitigate the harsh physiological and psychological consequences of Darwinian evolution and hereditary conditions.

in Progress and pathology