Showing 1 - 10 of 20 annotations contributed by Galbo, MA, MILS, Sebastian

Summary:

Anna Gasperini builds on existing scholarship by examining how Victorian ‘penny blood’ literature depicted working-class readers’ anxieties concerning medical dissection following the 1832 Anatomy Act. Within the historical context of Britain, a dearth of cadavers spurred the rise of various crimes, including body-snatching, graverobbing, and murder. While the families of the middle- and upper-class dead could finance a funeral and secure a place of safe rest, such as in an ancestral vault or tomb, the poor were often buried in shallow or mass graves. These burial sites were often unearthed, and the bodies were sold to (knowing and unknowing) medical men for anatomical examination. To quell these crimes, government authorities instated the 1832 Anatomy Act, which was “a law that allowed anatomists to source dissection material from the pauper” (xii). More specifically, Gasperini explains, “[w]hen it was passed, the Anatomy Act imposed that the bodies of those who were too poor, or whose families were too poor, to afford a funeral were to be handed over to the anatomy schools for dissection” (xii). The Anatomy Act, disregarding pauper consent and personal wishes, effectively targeted impoverished people who relied on workhouse support and alms, exploiting poor bodies to supply medical schools and advance research. The fear and disgust for the law were widespread: “. . . for them [working-class penny blood readers] dissection, bodysnatching, and forfeiture of one’s body to the anatomists after 48 hours under the Anatomy Act were a terrifying reality” (xiii). This fear oddly presaged Count Dracula’s remark in Tod Browning’s 1931 film: “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” In other words, the finality of death may be incomprehensible, but posthumous desecration of the body through dissection provokes a deeper sense of horror.

Exacerbating the act’s legal conditions was the fact that “semi-literate” working-class people, although vaguely aware of the law’s significance, could not fully interpret the dense legal argot that described the new regulations—an example of cruel political skullduggery—which obscured what would happen to their bodies following death (12–13). Far from being a benevolent political gesture, the act “. . . was an exercise in rhetoric, against which the pauper—semi-literate, socially powerless, and politically underrepresented—could not possibly win” (15). Popular fears that predated and intensified following the act concretized suspicion and anger directed at physicians, the medical sciences, and mortuary practices.

These apprehensions, Gasperini argues, found vivid expression in the pages of the penny blood, a genre “churned out by underpaid hack-writers” and obsessed with storylines “involving murder, betrayal, gender-shifting, and the occasional supernatural event (not to mention scantily clad damsels in distress)” (4). While the penny blood’s serialized melodramas were derided as tawdry sensationalism by middle- and upper-class readers, the genre reflected working-class preoccupations about the Anatomy Act and how the bodies of the impoverished dead were subject to the posthumous medical gaze (4). The penny blood embraced a “generally more violent and graphic concept of entertainment that was popular among lower class individuals. . . .” (4) and constructed plots that directly tapped into long-entrenched suspicions about medical cruelty and physical dismemberment. While the era’s educated readership disdained the recognizable tropes of the penny blood—murderous graverobbers, devious surgeons, vampires, eldritch cemeteries, and cadavers—the narratives in which they figured elucidated the virulent classism and exploitation perpetuated by the Anatomy Act. 

Gasperini provides close readings of a range of penny blood texts, including Manuscripts from the Diary of a Physician (1840s), Varney the Vampyre; or: the Feast of Blood (1840s), The String of Pearls (1840s, popularly referred to as Sweeny Todd, The Demon-Barber of Fleet Street), and The Mysteries of London (1840s). Not all narratives have explicitly medical themes or characters who are physicians or anatomists, nor do the stories make overt reference to the Anatomy Act. Instead, as Gasperini’s analyses demonstrate, they all confront larger working-class anxieties concerning mortality and what might be regarded as the social afterlife of a human corpse, whether that be posthumous dissection, cannibalism, necrophagy, or some other horrific desecration of the body. Fundamentally, while the stories vary, they share a general preoccupation with the corpse’s “bodily integrity” (16), asking what forces act upon the body (or have the authority to) following death and expressing fear over the individuals and institutions that presume to disturb the repose of the dead. Indeed, for all the penny blood’s grotesquery, there is a tacit insistence on the sanctity of the corpse; however, as Gasperini illustrates, the genre does not flinch from revealing the grim consequences of disturbing this repose in the interests of greed and medical progress.

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In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, Owens argues that the emergence, practice, and professionalization of American gynecology in the 19th century were inextricably enmeshed with the institution of slavery and discourses of biological racism. “Modern American gynecology,” writes Owens, “could certainly exist without slavery, but slavery’s existence allowed for the rapid development of this branch of medicine, and especially of gynecological surgery” (6). As she shows, gynecology developed as quickly as it did only because white American physicians had access to women’s bodies marked as racially inferior. That gynecology’s maturation accelerated in the American South is no indication that its practitioners had a humane interest in enslaved women’s health (66). On the contrary. Owens argues that slave owners were invested in maintaining the reproductive health of enslaved women in the interest of increasing the size of their population: “Thus the repair of any medical condition that could render an otherwise healthy slave woman incapable of bearing children further strengthened the institution of slavery” (39). Additionally, there were broader implications, as medical research using enslaved women’s bodies produced knowledge about how to treat, in turn, white women: “Black lives mattered medically because they made white lives healthier and better” (107).

This leads Owens to argue why enslaved women should be esteemed as the maternal counterparts to the oft-celebrated white ‘fathers’ of American gynecology: “. . . black women, especially those who were enslaved, can arguably be called the ‘mothers’ of this branch of medicine because of the medical roles they played as patients, plantation nurses, and midwives. Their bodies enabled the research that yielded the data for white doctors to write medical articles about gynecological illnesses, pharmacology, treatments, and cures” (25). This is especially true, as she points out, when examining the medical research of the lauded gynecologist, James Marion Sims, who opened and operated a “sick house” for enslaved women suffering from gynecological ailments (36). Sims operated this clinic to devise a surgical solution to a serious and commonplace gynecological issue among enslaved women, vesico-vaginal fistulae. As an enterprising young physician, Sims took advantage of enslaved women’s bodies to conduct his surgical trials. Eventually, he triumphed and cured an enslaved woman, and published the results in a respected medical journal, thus enshrining his reputation (39). The point, Owen emphasizes, is that “[t]hanks in large part to his experimentation on enslaved black women, Sims had established himself as one of the country’s preeminent gynecological surgeons less than a decade after he began his gynecological career” (39). Medical Bondage thus strives, in part, to restore the lives and contributions of these enslaved women to the story of American gynecology’s genesis.

Owens’ study takes a surprising turn, arguing that “. . . the later development of modern American gynecology can no more be disentangled from Irish immigration than it can be separated from its roots in slavery” (90). This shift in racial and geographic focus parallels the similar roles of enslaved black women of the South and poor, immigrant Irish women of the urban North in the development of gynecology. Owens shows how racial alterity was “mapped onto” poor Irish immigrant women living in major urban centers, such as New York City (20). As many Irish immigrant women suffered poverty, inadequate (if any) medical care, sexual assault, and were drawn into prostitution (and the attendant onslaught of venereal diseases), they became ideal medical subjects for gynecologists. Physicians eventually published their Irish patient case studies, which “. . . helped to create the foundation for the racist laws that colored the Irish as not quite white and sometimes placed them alongside black people as biological models for racial inferiority” (90). Just as Southern gynecologists had access to enslaved women’s bodies, their Northern counterparts treated and experimented on racially othered immigrant women. In this way, Owens argues, “[t]he scientific and medical beliefs that doctors held about Irish women were nearly indistinguishable to [sic] those they held about African women” (115). Overall, Medical Bondage articulates a well-researched and sobering retelling of the dominant accounts of American gynecology.

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The Last Strawberry

Swan, Rita

Last Updated: Nov-14-2022

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In her memoir, The Last Strawberry, Rita Swan describes the illness and death of her sixteen-month-old son, Matthew. As practicing Christian Scientists, Swan and her husband observe their son’s sudden symptoms and unusual behavior but do not visit a pediatrician because their church prohibits medical treatment. Instead, they hire Christian Science “practitioners” whose goal is to effect a cure through prayer. These prayers, however, fail, and Matthew’s condition quickly deteriorates. After days of unsuccessful faith-based treatment, Swan decides, in desperation and opposition to church doctrine, to bring her son to a hospital, where he is diagnosed with advanced spinal meningitis. Dismayed by her decision “to resort to materia medica,” the practitioners refuse the family further spiritual support (35). Swan recalls, “We brought our Christian Science books to our comatose child in the intensive care unit. We read, whispered, prayed, and cried over him for hours every day, whether our Church believed it was right or not” (37). Matthew eventually died in the hospital in July 1977.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In The Unseen Shore: Memories of a Christian Science Childhood, Thomas Simmons narrates the physical, emotional, and spiritual anguish of growing up in, and later leaving, the Christian Science Church. “Have I escaped now? Enormous question—who knows?” writes Simmons, “The obvious answer is Yes, of course I’ve escaped. I now go to doctors; I no longer lie for helpless hours in bed, writhing and trying to pray” (5). Christian Science teaches that illness and pain are illusions of an unreal material world, and that human suffering can be healed through prayer. As the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, wrote in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, "Sin, disease, whatever seems real to material sense, is unreal in divine Science" (353). Simmons explains how this theological indoctrination distorted his view of the material world, morality, and the human body: “I remember very clearly several occasions when Sunday school teachers would warn us that medical doctors were not to be trusted because the world they believed in was not our world—it was the world of mortal mind, of disease and distress” (4). Simmons wavers uneasily between apostasy and piety, questioning if he should trust his physical, bodily senses (“mortal mind”) or the numinous promises of Divine care. As he grows up practicing Christian Science, suffering untreated ear infections and other illnesses, he struggles to maintain a posture of devotion while coping with spiritual misgivings.

These “tremors of doubt”, however, haunt Simmons beyond childhood into his adult years (106). Yet two powerful experiences draw him away from Christian Science: the study and composition of poetry and “the love of bodies” (67). In need of a different kind of spiritual direction, Simmons turns to poets whose works celebrate the beauty of the concrete world, realizing that “. . . I want the world, want its physical hardness and qualities of light and sound, the depths of its touch and soul. In the words of poets and teachers I see my own path back into that world” (129). Another key incident occurs following a bout of spiritual renewal when Simmons interviews to become a Christian Science practitioner (a kind of minister who prays for ailing Church members). Stopping to savor the beauty of the California coastline, he hopes the gorgeous expanse will reveal a divine sign affirming his spiritual ambition. He receives an altogether different omen, however, one he considers mockingly lewd, in the form of a naked man exercising on the beach below where he sits: “And yet I could not quite leave. For a few seconds I watched this man run. Far from admiring the precision of his muscles or the stillness of his torso as he moved his legs, I rejected them: they could hold no sway over me, for they were not real. But they remained interesting in their unreality” (156). (Readers might imagine this nude interloper as Vesalius’s anatomical man from De humani corporis fabrica [1555], who stretches and moves with certainty, exhibiting the magnificent brawn and sinews of the human form.) In this moment, Simmons's spiritual optimism almost vanishes, unnerved by the physically real, naked human materiality in which he will ultimately find solace and beauty.

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Andrew Mangham’s The Science of Starving in Victorian Literature, Medicine, and Political Economy examines how Victorian writers drew upon the era’s medicine and physiology to represent the physical realities of starvation. Wondering readers, at first glance, might ask if starvation can be described in any terms other than a physical experience; however, Mangham argues that prevailing nineteenth-century political economy theorized population growth and food scarcity in ways that radically obscured the corporeal suffering wrought by starvation. Undergirding Victorian-era political economy was the influential work of the British cleric-economist, Thomas Malthus, and the rise of statistics. Malthus’s well-entrenched theories maintained that starvation, or large-scale famine, was a natural (and therefore inevitable) response to overpopulation. “In Malthus’s thinking,” Mangham clarifies, “hunger is the greatest tragedy in human economics: in the worst of times it rises up as a horrible check on those nations whose resources have been overrun by improvident birth rates” (1). These theories further solidified within religious contexts, which produced the peculiar notion of “salutary starvation” (26) or “the providential law of starvation” (30)—an understanding of famine and other disasters as just consequences for exceeding the material capacities of God’s “natural system” (26). Malthus’s theories, imbued with religious interpretations, were pernicious and far-reaching, seeping into how the British government and affluent classes viewed and (mis)understood poverty. Mangham also maintains that Malthus’s theories were augmented by the emergence of statistics during the first several decades of the century, which enabled the government to measure and evaluate epidemiological patterns, demographic data, and other information about human populations (53). He notes that while statistics were used to collect data about starvation, the data were frequently presented in ways that skewed the prevalence of malnutrition, food scarcity, and diseases and mortality rates related to starvation (56). Using a range of literary and primary sources, Mangham underscores that support for statistics was far from monolithic, that for all the scientific certitude that government officials invested in the discipline, there were critics who vociferated about how statistics were often reductive representations of human experience. In other words, masses of tabulated numbers created a cold, mathematical distance between government authorities and those human lives suffering starvation (56–57). Overall, Mangham outlines a bleak picture of Victorian political economy and its views of material privation.

For Mangham, then, one of the most injurious consequences of political economy was its failure to observe starvation (and its manifold health complications) as a material, indeed physiological, experience. As noted, political economists viewed starvation as anything but a form of bodily suffering, using theories instead to explain the naturalness and necessity of hunger and thus blaming the poor, not government and industry, for their problems (31). While political theorists were preoccupied with these explanations, Mangham traces the era’s concurrent developments in medicine that examined the physiology of hunger and digestion. The gastrointestinal research of Italian Lazzaro Spallanzani influenced Victorian physicians, namely John Hunter, Charles Thackrah, George Henry Lewes, Thomas Southwood Smith, and others, who sought to describe the anatomical workings of the stomach and explain the bodily sensations of hunger (36). Against this backdrop, Mangham argues that Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charles Dickens—united in their “antipathy towards Malthusianism” (17)—recognized the power in articulating starvation using physiological terms, and turned to science to limn “. . . the material sufferings of the starving and, more importantly, on detailed analysis of what it means to go hungry and to observe and to write about it in a way that seeks to be truthful” (16). In chapters that individually examine each author’s literary works, Mangham demonstrates how “. . . physiological ideas offered both an alternative way of thinking about hunger and an exploration of the ways in which it might be interpreted” (47). This volume’s close readings of these authors’ various novels, journalism, and speeches reveal that medical science offered a language that could undermine theories that misunderstood human starvation and the sociopolitical conditions that perpetuate it. Kingsley, Gaskell, and Dickens used new science to depict not only physiologically accurate but humanized renderings of the poor.

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In 1902, an unusual structure was erected on South Dakota’s windswept prairies. It was not a silo, farmhouse, or barn—buildings that would be perfectly commonplace in that corner of the state. This conspicuously odd edifice, a “two-story building, with its jasper granite foundations,” was called the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, a first-of-its-kind and federally managed institution based outside of Canton, South Dakota (Joinson 24). The asylum, which operated from 1902 to 1934, was designed to incarcerate and treat Indigenous peoples deemed ‘mad’ by powerful political authorities, such as reservation superintendents and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the historian and disability studies scholar, Susan Burch, the facility “ultimately held four hundred men, women, and children from seventeen states and nearly fifty tribal nations.”

In Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Carla Joinson provides an incisive institutional history of the Canton Asylum, examining the political motivations for its establishment, its different periods of (mis)management, and, ultimately, its demise in the early 1930s due to inspection findings and Indigenous affairs advocacy spurred by John Collier. In writing the book, Joinson seeks to answer her chief research question: “why an institution like this asylum could exist for so many years, and what made it tick as a viable part of the Interior Department” (2). Her research explores the mechanics of institutional longevity, specifically how, despite government inspection reports that revealed appalling evidence of neglect and abuse, the facility remained in operation for over three decades. Joinson’s book also corroborates the staggering fact that many of the asylum’s patients were not, in fact, ‘insane,’ but sent to the institution only so that the federal government could detain and surveil people who may have experienced difficulties with reservation authorities back home. Other Indigenous peoples, such as those with epilepsy and ‘feeblemindedness,’ were also deemed ‘mad’ and in need of medical detention. Many instances of abuse are chronicled: unhygienic conditions, patient restraint, fraudulent diagnoses and misdiagnoses, suicide, and failure to quarantine tubercular patients. Joinson also unearths decades-long dysfunction among the facility’s administration: staff backbiting and high turnover rates, lack of medical treatment, poor medical training and recordkeeping, and refusal to employ translators to communicate with Indigenous patients and understand their different cultures. Vanished in Hiawatha documents that Canton’s patients suffered years of neglect, and those who would have potentially benefitted from psychiatric treatment never received it because the facility was little more than a rural prison for unwanted, troublesome, and chronically ill Indigenous peoples.

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Sarah Leavitt’s graphic memoir, Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, narrates and vividly illustrates the pain and difficulty of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Leavitt’s memoir shares her family’s experiences nursing their mother, Midge Leavitt, for six years following her diagnosis at the early age of 52. “I created this book,” Leavitt explains, “to remember her as she was before she got sick, but also to remember her as she was during her illness, the ways in which she was transformed and the way in which parts of her endured” (Leavitt 1). The memoir’s spare, black-and-white panels trace her mother’s deterioration from the first, seemingly innocuous symptoms (such as misremembering conversations and forgetting to unplug an iron) to the debilitating and tragic manifestations of Alzheimer’s, such as confusion, behavioral changes, aphasia, and ultimately, the inability to recognize loved ones. As greatly painful as these experiences were for Leavitt, she singles out from the murk and monotony of caregiving moments that inspire laughter, introspection, and gratitude. Early one morning, Leavitt’s mother wakes her to admire a fresh, “glittering” snowfall (86). On another occasion, Leavitt illustrates a rainstorm. Instead of keeping dry, her mother wants to stand in the downpour: “So finally we let go of her. She stuck out her tongue to taste the rain” (78). For Leavitt, humor brings, if not understanding, comfort when the stifling presence of her mother’s suffering goes momentarily unfelt. Caregiving also stirs recollections about her mother’s personality. Leavitt remembers, for instance, her mother’s love of Granny Smith apples: “She ate the core and stem and everything, crunching loudly” (23). She remembers her mother’s love of nature, “. . . plants, worms, rocks, soil. She did not seem separate from it as most people did” (93). Her mother also adores the poetry of E. E. Cummings and Robert Frost and Aretha Franklin’s music. Leavitt does not allow suffering to efface her mother’s personality, providing a poignantly moving account of how caregiving shapes memory and deepens family love in unexpected ways.

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An Enemy of the People

Ray, Satyajit

Last Updated: Aug-09-2021

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Summary:

In this 1989 Bengali-language film, the director and screenwriter Satyajit Ray presents an arresting contemporary reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People. In Chandipur, India, Dr. Ashoke Gupta treats an increasing number of patients with hepatitis and jaundice. After some patients die, Dr. Gupta fears that the town could succumb to an epidemic. A water quality report reveals that bacteria contaminate local sources, and that the pollution lies in the town’s most populous area. Further complicating the crisis is Dr. Gupta’s determination that the holy water distributed at a new Hindu temple is culpable for sickening visitors. Eager to publish the findings in a local newspaper and advocate for the closure of the temple (a major pilgrimage destination) until the contamination is abated, Dr. Gupta must contend with his younger brother, Nisith, and other municipal bureaucrats and journalists who suppress his findings to protect the tourism revenue. The physician struggles to communicate medical information to a population deluded by religious superstition and deceived by avaricious leaders.

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Richard M. Ratzan brings together scholars and creative writers to celebrate the legacy of the sixteenth-century Flemish physician and anatomist, Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), and his 1543 landmark text, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body). Ratzan defines the volume as an “ekphrastic collection of poetry, art and short prose” inspired by “the inimitably conceived and executed anatomical woodcuts” of Vesalius’s most enduring creation (xi). Organized by different genres, Ratzan presents introductory essays, ekphrastic works, translations of Vesalius-inspired poems, and detailed note and bibliography sections. The collection does not merely panegyrize but articulates the deeper intellectual import of De Humani’s meticulous anatomical renderings. Sachiko Kusukawa’s introductory essay frames De Humani as a “rhetorically charged polemic and defense” that challenged the European medical institution in two key ways (3). First, it promoted the revival of the “ancient [Greek and Roman] practice of healing based on diet, medicines and surgery,” a bold effort that aimed to resuscitate anatomy and other forms of “hands-on engagement” that had fallen out of favor with Vesalius’s contemporaries (2). Second, De Humani emendated the anatomical descriptions advanced by Galen, a second-century physician who promoted dissection in his Anatomical Procedures and whom European physicians considered an authority (3). This volume captures the fascinating fusion of artistry and intellectual individuality that characterizes Vesalius’s work.

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Face Time

Moore, Lorrie

Last Updated: Oct-28-2020

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

In the lonely glow of her computer, Lorrie Moore’s protagonist FaceTimes her father, who is quarantined in a hospital after contracting the COVID-19 virus following hip surgery. She explains to him the circumstances of the pandemic and names the celebrities and political personages who have tested positive for the virus. Befuddled by hydroxychloroquine, her father passes in and out of hallucination and lucid conversation but jokes when he can despite the side-effects of the “bullshit malaria drugs.” The counterpoint to her sadness for her father is revulsion for the “ghastly” new rituals and habits of indefinite quarantine—the performative antics of Zoom concerts, YouTube binges, bizarre insurance commercials, Bible readings, and social distancing. She is appalled, too, by “well-to-do white families in large suburban homes” that claim “the pandemic for themselves,” families that sanitize grocery bags and order from Amazon and Grubhub. Intermingled with the numbing ennui of quarantine is disgust for the consumerism that thoughtlessly implicates human life, the front-line workers who make these convenient services possible. The protagonist and her sisters coax the hospital staff to comfort their father, play his requested Brahms symphony (any one of the four will do), and give him lemonade, but the “visored hazmatted nurses dressed like beekeepers” are overwhelmed and appear unapproachable, even threatening.

These FaceTime calls become increasingly bewildering to the father. The protagonist’s sister invites her to join a disjointed three-way FaceTime, but the call is interrupted by one of the father’s hydroxychloroquine-induced hallucinations. With “a howl of anguish” and “grimace with agony and sorrow,” he utters German expressions recalled from his war days. The protagonist realizes that her father is “imagining he was a prisoner of war; that was what it must have felt to him—the cruel isolation, the medicine, the lights, the strange machines all around him.” Like the ebbing signal of a satellite in some faraway orbit, contact with her father grows tenuous. For the next FaceTime call, a nurse says her father is asleep. The following day, she waits again for a scheduled FaceTime chat. She phones the hospital to inquire about her father’s missed call but is put on hold, then disconnected. Later, at midnight, the hospital calls to inform her that her father has died.

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