Category Archives: Literature, Medicine and Science

Exploring the Institutionalisation of Archaeology

by Abbey Ellis and Subha Robert William

The discipline of archaeology was born in the museum. In the words of Andrew Christenson, “museums were really the first professional homes for archaeology.” Indeed, museums in the mid-nineteenth century played an important role in the institutionalisation of archaeology, forming an essential stepping stone to the discipline we know today. The historical and contemporary intersections between archaeology, museums and collections provide ample scope for research and debate, as the relationship between archaeology and museums has been much altered over time through changing displays, practices, and museum politics.

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The heterogeneous nature of manuscript recipe books in early modern England

by Kate Owen
Kate Owen has recently completed her MA in the English department at King’s College London. She has an interest in the medical humanities, the transmission of scientific knowledge in the early modern period, and is currently a volunteer at St Bartholomew’s Hospital Museum and Archive. 

In the second semester of my master’s programme, Early Modern English Literature: Text and Transmission, I took a module called ‘professing writing’. This module looks at a large range of literary and non-literary genres, such as poetry, devotional texts, travel writing and scientific writing. Through guest lecturers and trips to professional libraries, the module also introduced different approaches to academic research. It was on one of these trips to the Wellcome Library, that I first came across early modern women’s recipe books.

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Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes: American Telegraphic Literature

by Harriet Thompson, PhD candidate in the English department at King’s College London. 

William John Johnston’s Lightning Flashes and Electric Dashes is a volume of late nineteenth-century American fiction comprised of ‘contributions from the pens of all the prominent writers in the ranks of telegraphic literature’. Johnston was himself a telegraph operator, as well as a publisher, and editor of the profession’s leading trade journal ‘The Operator’. He published a number of notable works of telegraphic literature by women telegraphers, including Ella Cheever Thayer’s novel Wired Love and short fictional works by Lida Churchill and Josie Schofield.

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Crossings: Reflections on Disability and Intersectionality

Disability+Intersectionality is a fortnightly reading group based at King’s College London where members meet to discuss key texts in critical disability studies, situating them within the broader context of the humanities and social sciences. Each session will focus on a theme and explore how disability intersects with categories such as gender, race, sexuality, and class.

Christina Lee is a second-year PhD student in the Department of English and a co-organiser of Disability+Intersectionality. In this post she reflects on lessons from the reading group and what intersectionality means to her.

At the Intersection

I am terrified of intersections. There is something about the open space in the middle that petrifies me. Once, while I was trying to cross the road, a car suddenly turned right and the driving instructor – sitting next to the learner in the passenger seat – stuck his head out of the window to rail at me for being on the road. I was actually on the pavement a few seconds before and left to cross to the right. I did not go on the pavement because it was too narrow and had poorly cut curbs. He didn’t want to listen and continued to insist I should be on the pavement. Eventually they drove off, though not before he proclaimed that I ought to be run over by a car. This is what I used to think of when I hear ‘disability’ and ‘intersection’.

Pavements, sidewalks, footpaths, are designed for pedestrians, people who use their feet and walk with an easy, steady stride without canes, crutches or prosthetics. 

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Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like

by Carl Kears, lecturer in Old and Middle English literature before 1400 at King’s College London, and James Paz, University of Manchester and King’s alumnus.

Science fiction may seem resolutely modern, but the genre could actually be considered hundreds of years old. There are the alien green “children of Woolpit”, who appeared in 12th-century Suffolk and were reported to have spoken a language no one could understand. There’s also the story of Eilmer the 11th-century monk, who constructed a pair of wings and flew from the top of Malmesbury Abbey. And there’s the Voynich Manuscript, a 15th-century book written in an unknowable script, full of illustrations of otherworldly plants and surreal landscapes.

These are just some of the science fictions to be discovered within the literatures and cultures of the Middle Ages. There are also tales to be found of robots entertaining royal courts, communities speculating about utopian or dystopian futures, and literary maps measuring and exploring the outer reaches of time and space.

The influence of the genre we call “fantasy”, which often looks back to the medieval past in order to escape a techno-scientific future, means that the Middle Ages have rarely been associated with science fiction. But, as we have found, peering into the complex history of the genre, while also examining the scientific achievements of the medieval period, reveals that things are not quite what they seem. Continue reading Science fiction was around in medieval times – here’s what it looked like

On the Anthropocene, and debts of gratitude and solidarity: reflections on a lecture

by Dr Adelene Buckland, Senior Lecturer in English Literature

On 21 March 2018, I gave a talk for the London Arts and Humanities Partnership (LAHP) ‘Arts and Society’ series at Senate House. As I spoke, students in the building performed a banner drop in support of the lecturers’ strike over pensions, and had the fire exits drilled shut on them by those who did not support their protest. It was an odd moment in my career, to be speaking on Darwin while unaware of political events unfolding elsewhere in the building, and it caused me some reflections on my paper.

The work was drawn from an essay forthcoming in Philological Quarterly in a special issue on ‘earth writing’, the outcome of a symposium I attended in Düsseldorf in April 2016, when I was five weeks pregnant with my third daughter and unable to drink much of the wine (and unable to tell anybody why). The essay is also poignant for me because it marks (I hope) the culmination of what I guess might be called the ‘early career’ phase of my research, on Victorian literature and geology.

‘The Holocene Extinction’, Image © http://bytesdaily.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/the-holocene-extinction.html.

Reviews and citations of my book, Novel Science, have sometimes surprised me in coming from an ecological perspective: in all the years I worked on the book, I hadn’t really thought about it in these terms at all. Since then, I have often been asked questions about the new geological Epoch in which we are now said to be living, the Anthropocene, and its relationship to my historical research. I wasn’t happy with any of my answers.

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Ambiguities and paradoxes in clinical practice

by James Rakoczi, PhD researcher, Department of English. This post was first published on the Centre for Humanities and Health blog.

On 28 September 2017, the Centre for Humanities and Health brought together a collection of healthcare practitioners, literary scholars, journal editors, teachers and anthropologists at St. Bride’s Foundation off Fleet Street to discuss ambiguities and paradoxes in clinical practice. Because of my research, I spend a lot of my time thinking about ambiguity as it pertains to the experience of being ill, but I rarely get such an opportunity to consider it from the other side—how ambiguity haunts and energises the mechanisms of medical institutions and desires. Continue reading Ambiguities and paradoxes in clinical practice

Metaphor in Literature and Science #bslswinter2017

#bslswinter2017

by James Rakoczi, PhD Candidate, Department of English 

There is a gravity to this situation. He has broken my heart. We are waging a war on cancer. Our closest neighbour is Andromeda. Synapses permit neurons to communicate with each other.

Warning: this post is ripe to bursting with metaphors.

Thomas Kuhn argued that you don’t see something until ‘you have the right metaphor to perceive it’ (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). How then might we perceive the literary and scientific dimensions of the metaphor in itself?

Metaphor negotiates across the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities at the university. Does the metaphor stay the same in its transmission/translation or does it transform, transgress, transcend? Are metaphors necessarily rooted within a particular historical context or can productive analogies between literary and scientific texts across disparate historical periods be discovered? Can we (should we?) read a neurological metaphor into a text which pre-dates neurology? Should we (can we?) read a scientific metaphor aimed at pedagogical elucidation like we might a poetical metaphor: an immanent stitch of image which nevertheless troubles and growths beyond itself (by our invention or its design)?

On Saturday 4th November 2017, the Centre for Humanities and Health and the English Department will host the British Society of Literature and Science’s (BSLS) annual winter symposium. The symposium will be an opportunity for many of us to try our hand at solving these questions, or asking even more.

Wiki commons Varsha_ys
A message from one synapse to another. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

by Martina Zimmermann, honorary Associate Professor in Pharmacology at Goethe University Frankfurt, with an MA in Literature and Medicine and a second PhD in Health Humanities at King’s College London.

I am a pharmaceutical scientist by training who specialised in neuropharmacology. For over 15 years, my research interests have been the molecular mechanisms that cause the death of brain cells in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. While pursuing, and later supervising, laboratory based experimental projects, I more and more often wondered how patients actually experience the condition which I only knew from studies in cell culture and other disease models. The methodologies, models and approaches I used were unsuited to answering this question.

Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write…

I began looking for patient accounts about a decade ago. At the time, I found only just over a dozen of books published in English, and one diary in French. I was astonished that there were so few, especially because I felt that the popular press had long preferred Alzheimer’s disease to any other subject in its health and wellbeing pages. Also, patients usually have five to ten years between diagnosis and death, and, at the time of clinically perceivable onset, can continue to articulate themselves proficiently in writing, as well as retaining figurative language. Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write. Continue reading The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

Book Review: Balint Matters

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature & Medical Humanities

Balint Matters
Cover image from ‘Balint Matters: Psychosomatics and the Art of Assessment’ by Jonathan Sklar (London: Karnac, 2017)

Michael Balint is mentioned in medical humanities circles as a revered ancestor, much as one might talk about William Empson as a significant figure in the history of English literary criticism. Everyone knows they’re important but surprisingly few people read either writer today or even know why they should. (An important exception is Josie Billington’s superb Is Literature Healthy? – reviewed here – which devotes a chapter to Balint.)

Empson did theory before Theory, and Balint did narrative medicine before Narrative Medicine. Both men were at least as interesting as what came after them, and yet both have become unduly sepia-tinted with the passage of time. Part of the reason for this fading in Balint’s case has to do with the fact that his clinical examples are firmly rooted in the sociological reality of the 1940s and 50s. The world Balint describes is hidebound by class. As a psychoanalytically-minded medical humanist, I occasionally press a copy of Balint’s classic, The Doctor, the Patient and the Illness (1957) on MSc students, but always with the caveat about his antiquated case material. ‘Someone should update it,’ I whisper, as they saunter out of the room.

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