Shelf Selection: Medicine and Literature

Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts showing off the collections of the Wellcome Unit Library, Oxford!
Being interdisciplinary in nature, the history of medicine offers fascinating opportunities to view disease and medical treatment through time in various social and cultural contexts. This means that although we are a small and specialised library, our books come under a wide range of subject classifications, from BL (religion) to U (military science), via JC (political theory).
In this week’s shelf selection we have a variety of books which link medicine with literary works:

Melancholy, Medicine and Religion in Early Modern England– Mary Ann Lund (PR2224 LUN 2010)

Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is an essential text for understanding early modern attitudes to illness and cure. Melancholy was understood as an ailment of body and soul, and Burton suggested that the experience of reading about the condition in his book could have curative powers. Mary Ann Lund argues that Burton’s approach has a lot to tell us about the history of reading and the relationships between reader, author and text. Looking at the diverse influences behind Burton’s conviction, including early modern medical writings, she presents Anatomy as a literary, medical and religious text which defies easy categorisation.

Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film
Jennifer Cooke
(PN56.P5 COO 2009)

This study begins with an overview of plague-writing classics by Daniel Defoe and Albert Camus, and goes on to trace the survival of plague as a metaphor and cultural phenomenon beyond the last major European epidemics and into the twentieth century. Cooke finds echoes of the disease across theatre, politics and media, including anti-Semitic rhetoric, Freudian psychoanalysis and George A. Romero’s zombie films. For a collection of earlier historical and literary accounts of plague, see also Rebecca Totaro (ed.) The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources 1558-1603 (PR1125.P53 PLA 2010)

Disease and Death in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture– eds. Allan Ingram and Leigh Wetherall Dickson (PR448.D57 DIS 2016)

Originating in a collaborative research project by members of the Universities of Northumbria and Newcastle, this edited volume reads literary works by writers such as Maria Edgeworth and Jonathan Swift alongside medical books, letters and diaries, to consider how people ‘fashioned’, or ascribed meaning to, diseases and causes of death in this period. A distinction can be observed in 18th century society between ‘fashionable’ and ‘unfashionable’ diseases (consumption and ‘ennui’ were generally listed in the former category, plague and smallpox in the latter), and literary works played a role in creating, reinforcing and subverting these categories.

Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in
Victorian Culture
– Martha Stoddard Holmes

(PR468.P35.S76 STO 2004)

Part of the ‘Corporealities: Discourses of Disability’ series, this book links the prevalence of characters with disabilities in Victorian fiction to a wider cultural trend of melodramatic representation of disability, also seen among doctors and educators, and asks what this can tell us about 19th century society and culture. Holmes’s study looks at writers including Charles Dickens (who used the character of Tiny Tim as a sentimentalized shortcut for his message of charity and social justice), Wilkie Collins, Dinah Craik and Charlotte Younge, alongside other sources from the same period including autobiographical accounts from people with disabilities.

Hardy the Physician: Medical Aspects of the Wessex Tradition– Tony Fincham (PR4754 FIN 2008)

Using evidence of Thomas Hardy’s own experience and understanding of physical and mental illness, Tony Fincham reviews the place of illness and medicine in Hardy’s fiction, making particular reference to the GP protagonist of The Woodlanders, Dr Edred Fitzpiers. Fincham highlights Hardy’s ‘consistent and continuous forefronting of psychological factors in the aetiology of illness’ (p.117), concluding that Hardy favoured a holistic, emotionally aware approach to medical matters.


If you would like to consult any of the books held in the Wellcome Unit Library, contact us to arrange your visit!