Daily Dose: Featuring the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, Lindsey Fitzharris

Welcome to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose, companion to the Fiction Reboot!

Medical humanities is a growing field, a place where intersections not only of medicine and literature but also of medicine and narrative, culture and society are encouraged and explored. Durham University’s Center for Medical Humanities puts it this way: it is a field “in which humanities and social sciences perspectives are brought to bear upon an exploration of the human side of medicine.”

In the last few weeks, I have been featuring my own research into the weird and wonderful corners of medical history and literature. Today, however, I present the first of several posts featuring the work of my medical historian/medical humanist colleagues. Our guest for today is the woman behind Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, a fantastic blog that has gained increasing attention over the last year. I present Lindsey Fitzharris, historian, colleague and friend!

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Lindsey Fitzharris: Chirurgeon’s Apprentice

Lindsey Fitzharris is a medical historian who completed her doctorate at Oxford University with a specialty in the history of seventeenth-century alchemical pharmacopeia. Her interested are broad and cross boundaries–more interestingly, she has helped to make medical history and medical artifacts accessible to a broad audience. I have asked her to give us a few details on her present work, and to share with us her plans for the future in this expanding field. Lindsey is currently a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

Welcome, Lindsey!

1. You are a historian of medicine and have been working in academe, but are also transitioning (like so many of us). As you carve a niche of your own, can you say a bit about this new role for academics-as-trailblazers? And how has your research interests helped to get you there?

To be honest, all of this has come about quite suddenly and unexpectedly (as most wonderful opportunities do in life). I started The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice as a way of reaching out to friends and family who did not understand what it was I did as a medical historian. Beyond that, I’ve also always had an inherent desire to share the stories I come across in my research with a broader audience, and this website allows me to do just that.

For me, it’s not about fame or recognition, although certainly new and exciting opportunities have sprung from it. In fact, I find comfort in hiding behind the persona of The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, and sometimes worry what readers will think if they learned I was not only a woman, but also an American (the secret is out now!)

For me, it’s about writing for an enthusiastic and inquisitive audience who may otherwise not have the opportunity to learn about early modern medicine. On several occasions, I have received emails from readers who tell me that they are both surprised and entertained by what they read on the website.

But perhaps most importantly, writing for The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has forced me to think about my own work from the perspective of a non-specialist. This, in turn, has helped me grow as a writer, as a communicator and as a historian. For me, this is deeply satisfying.

2. I am a big fan of your blog, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice; in fact, I consider it a model for the Daily Dose (and a daily inspiration). I know it began as a way to elucidate the history of medicine (what we, as researchers, do) to family and friends–but has taken on a life of its own. Can you say a bit about its history?

I can’t believe it’s old enough to have a history!

The concept for The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice evolved from a conversation I had once with a friend. He’s a film-maker, and I, a mere historian. Yet, he was fascinated with my research. That got me thinking: maybe my work really is interesting. Driven partly by this and partly by the desire to reach beyond walls of academia, I started The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.

Two years on, and the website now has a terrific following (6500+ fans from all over the world)! I am constantly amazed by the level of interest in The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, and touched by the responses I receive from readers on an almost daily basis now.

It inspires me to keep writing.

3. Can you say a bit about your current on-going projects? Where might we see you in the future?

If you had asked me two years ago where I saw myself going, it certainly wouldn’t have been here. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from this entire experience is that life can change very quickly, and sometimes you just have to let yourself be swept up with it.

At the moment, I just finished filming a preview for a television series based off The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. It’s called “Medicine’s Dark Secrets” and will explore subjects such as anthropodermic bibliopegy (binding books with human skin), body-snatching, medical curiosities and criminal dissection in the 18th and 19th centuries. The series is being directed and filmed by Lesley-Anne Morrison and Gregg McNeill at Big Baby Productions in Scotland, and the preview will appear on their website at the end of the month.

I’ve also had an article on bloodletting practices accepted in New Scientist, and I have several others in the works.

4. You are also a “cross-over” author in another way–like some of my recent Fiction Reboot interviewees, you are working towards writing a novel. From Tessa Harris to Alex Grecian to Stephen Gallagher, medical history has made a big impact on shaping story. What are your plans/hopes for fiction? (So that I might host you again after your first release!)

I have always been a passionate storyteller. I suppose that is what first attracted me to history as a subject. I am so often moved by the stories I come across in my research—stories about the people who died, stories about the loved ones they left behind, and stories about the surgeons who overcame the unthinkable to learn more about the very thing that defines us: our anatomy.

I am currently working on two fiction projects: one is a historical novel which centers upon a surgeon in the 17th century who gets embroiled in a political cover-up. The other is a dark (and slightly disturbing) fairy tale which is a part of a larger project currently headed by Alex Anstey at Reality in Dreams. There are 8 writers altogether, and each story will be illustrated by a different artist. I’ve met with the other contributors and am so honored to be working with such a talented and imaginative group of writers!

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Thank you, Lindsey–
And please stay tuned for more features on the Daily Dose! Upcoming: Richard Barnett of the Sick City Project! And of course, the Fiction Reboot returned tomorrow with more on the writing life!

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!

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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. < http://www.nyam.org/library/rare-book-room/exhibits/telling-of-wonders/ter9.html.>