Hysterical tetanus in the Victorian South Pacific

In this chapter, Daniel Simpson delineates a complex model of imperial and cultural entanglement in the context of the death of the naval captain James Graham Goodenough under a hail of poisonous arrows on the Santa Cruz Islands in 1875. This was a moment in which previously vague British fears of the poisons of Santa Cruz were seemingly confirmed. However, the ship’s surgeon, Adam Brunton Messer, pointed to certain medical, cultural, and environmental factors that countered this popular hysteria. Superstitious dread of the reputed poisons of the region, Messer argued, had predisposed British sailors to a nervous irritability which either mimicked or encouraged the onset of tetanus. Furthermore, he insisted, endemic neurosis amongst sailors was responsible for the increasing prevalence of tetanus in the wounds of those struck by ostensibly poisonous arrows. Drawing upon new psychopathological understandings of the relations between mind and body, Messer effectively collapsed any distinctions between ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’ peoples clashing in the South Pacific by imagining that modern medical education might work in both cases to supplant antiquated superstitions and anecdotal evidence. His medical hypotheses, deployed at a juncture of intense intercultural contact, served both to characterise and to realise a form of medical modernity.

in Progress and pathology