Diseases of Modern Life

Project title: Diseases of Modern Life. Nineteenth-Century Perspectives (2014-2019)

PI: Prof Sally Shuttleworth

Postdoctoral researchers: Dr Amelia Bonea, Dr Melissa Dickson, Dr Jennifer Wallis

Funding body: European Research Council (Grant Agreement Number 340121)

Host Institution: University of Oxford

Project description:

This project explored the medical, literary and cultural responses in the Victorian age to the perceived problems of stress and overwork, anticipating many of the preoccupations of our own era. Particular areas of focus were: diseases of finance and speculation; diseases associated with particular professions; alcohol and drug addiction amidst the  middle classes; travel for health; education and over-pressure in the classroom; and the development of phobias and nervous disorders. The project aimed to break through the compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental or literary history, and to offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity facing us in the twenty-first century.

My own research for Diseases of Modern Life focused on occupational health in nineteenth-century Britain, especially in relation to office work and the introduction of new technologies of communication, the use of the telegraph and the telephone in medical practice as well as scientific networks in colonial South Asia. This led to the publication of a co-authored monograph (Anxious Times: Medicine and Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Britain) and a number of articles forthcoming in Technology and Culture (on “tuberculous telephones”) and Contextual Alternate (on the connections between Indian, British and Japanese radioactivity research in the early twentieth century).

Together with my colleagues, I also contributed to the creation of a Database of Primary and Secondary Sources relevant to the thematic strands of the project, in particular fields like Finance and Speculation, Diseases of Professions and Occupations, Addiction, Climate and Health, Education and Overpressure, Nervous Diseases, Technology and New Inventions. The database consists of over 3,000 entries, ranging from newspaper and journal articles to printed books, from across the nineteenth century.

Another outcome of this project was a two-day conference on “Medicine and Media,” co-organized with Sophie Vasset (Université de Paris Diderot), Carle Bonnafous-Murat (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3), Patrizia D’Andrea (Université Sorbonne Paris Cité) and Alexandre Wenger (Université de Fribourg). The aim of this event was to facilitate conversations between projects in medicine and humanities based in France, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, in particular with regard to research topics, practices and methodologies. The full programme and list of participants can be accessed here.

*Image: Illustrated London News, 1868.

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