Literary Medicine: The Daily Dose

If you are joining us for the first time today, welcome to the home page for the Fiction Reboot. We have been hosting tid-bits for authors and readers all summer, including notes on agents, featured fiction and author interviews (most recently with Barry Lyga, but DB Jackson and Stephen Gallagher coming soon). However, I am a medical humanist as well as a fiction author–and, as my bio attests, I spend a lot of time in the “mist-shrouded alleyways between the literary humanities and medical history.” Today, therefore, I am introducing the first in a series of posts that will feature weird and wonderful research (my own, and that of friends and colleagues). We will be calling this Literary Medicine feature The Daily Dose. To make navigation as simple as possible, simply look for the heading and logo of your choice–Fiction Reboot or Daily Dose. Though, of course, I hope you will join us for both. As recently interviewed authors Alex Grecian, Tessa Harris and Robin Blake can attest, medical history is often a springboard to fiction. My own current research includes work on birth defects and monstrosity of the 18th century. I will provide a short summary below, and you can follow more of this research on my twitter feed.

But don’t worry! The Fiction Reboot returns tomorrow with a fantastic interview with avid reader and book-seller, Chris Livingston. Also this week: An interview with author DB Jackson (recent release: Thieftaker). The future will include guest blogs from Curiosity Quills Press, and much more–And of course, I am still accepting suggestions for the Friday Fiction Feature. BONUS: I am also soliciting featured work from researchers and historians for the Daily Dose. Have a new project? Let me know about it (bschillace)! Want to see more from the freakish world of medical history? You can do no better than to tune in to colleague Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice!


Monstrous Mothers, Monstrous Births: the Horror of the Birthing Chamber in Popular Magazines and Short Fiction

 The whole of that part of the cranium or brain case, with its usual contents, which is naturally covered with hairy scalp, was absolutely wanting, and the foramen magnum occipitis covered with a blood exerescence […] I feared it would survive.[i]

—Dr. Stryker, Letter to the Editor, Feb 28, 1809

 Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath […] his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set […] were fixed on me.

—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Chapter 5, Frankenstein 1818

By the time Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Prometheus Unbound was published, the Gothic tradition was well established, though still evolving. The early romances that shaped Radcliffian Gothic were both revisited and reshaped by the sublime imagination of Romantic writers (a group to whom Shelley herself belonged.) However, increasing interest in and access to scientific discourse provided additional material; widespread debate about electrical stimulation and reflex, William Cullen and Robert Whytt’s work on the nervous system, and Charles Bell’s theories on the anatomy of the brain were fertile ground for imaginative speculation and certainly part of the cultural context near the time of Frankenstein’s publication. The monstrosity of the man-made man—a figure I will return to at length in Chapter Five—nonetheless has its predecessor in the monstrosity of “woman-made man,” the deformed and monstrous child of the equally horrific and mysterious womb. By the end of the 17th century, scientific societies has begun to question “wonderful” and monstrous accounts, but though wonders “had lost their aura,”[ii] the monstrous continued to interest and enthrall (and sell newspapers). This chapter explores the medicalization of birth in the eighteenth century and its representation not only in scientific debate but also in sensationalized news accounts which—like early versions of the “penny dreadful,” circulated tales of terror. London papers, magazines and popular miscellanies published records of horrific births, even as the “orphaned” child and “monstrous”mother became a trop for Gothic fiction.

[i] From a letter to the editor. Coxe, John Redman. The Philadelphia medical museum, Volume 6. (Philadelphia, 1809), 145.

[ii] “The 18th Century: Monsters as a Battleground for Scientific and Philisophical Debates,” A Telling of Wonders, Exhibit of the New York Academic of Medicine Rare Book Room. Jul 7, 2012. <>

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