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