Mysterious Medicine: The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe

Poe, Edgar AllanHawthorne, Nathaniel

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Anthology (Short Stories)

Annotated by:
Field, Steven
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-2022
  • Last revised: Jan-25-2022


Mysterious Medicine:  The Doctor-Scientist Tales of Hawthorne and Poe is one in a series of books called Literature and Medicine dedicated to the exploration and explication of the intersection of the two titled disciplines.  This volume, edited by L. Kerr Dunn, looks at the short stories (mostly—it includes one sonnet) of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe from the viewpoint of each author’s use of, and in some cases experiences with, doctors, diseases, and the medical profession.  The volume begins with an Introduction that situates the writings within the medical and social milieu of the period (the authors were contemporaneous) and illustrates the way in which the tales reflect the times.

The stories are grouped by author and arranged chronologically.  Among the nineteen entries included are “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” “The Birthmark,” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” for Hawthorne, and “The Black Cat,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” and “Some Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” for Poe; each entry is preceded by a brief introduction and followed by discussion questions.  An extensive list of scholarly references closes out the volume. 


The middle and later years of the nineteenth century were a time of expansion and change for medicine in America.  This period saw the rise of organized medicine; the shift from apothecary care to medical care; the development of anesthesia, which revolutionized surgery; and the competition between allopathic, or orthodox, and homeopathic medicine.  The period also included a fascination with certain less-than-mainstream medical or pseudoscientific practices such as mesmerism, or hypnosis, and phrenology.  It was a time of optimism that science could hold the answers to many of the problems humans faced, but also of fear that unbridled science might carry within it the seeds of its own destruction (Mary Shelley had penned Frankenstein in 1818). It was only natural that medical and health-related issues would appear in the literature of the time, as they do in the writing of several authors, including Hawthorne and Poe.  Many of these works offer a window into how doctors and medicine, and even science itself, were viewed by contemporary society.

Hawthorne and Poe were writers in the Romantic tradition, though both “dark” Romantics, and Poe is perhaps best known for his Gothic style.   Among the tales in this volume are Rappaccini’s Daughter, with its narrative of the “mad scientist” doctor experimenting on his own child (and its allegory of the struggle between allopathy and homeopathy which was playing out in Hawthorne’s New England at the time); “The Birthmark,” a cautionary tale about the search for physical perfection (and a warning to plastic surgeons everywhere); “The Black Cat,” a portrait of chronic alcoholism and paranoia; and “Berenice,” in which the fear of premature burial, a common one at the time, figures prominently.  Also to be found here is “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” a story of the 1721 smallpox epidemic as a great equalizer, and also an allegory of the relationship between Colonial America and Britain.

In addition to the stories, which are a pleasure to read in and of themselves, the editor’s introduction is very helpful; it provides a scaffolding for the collection, and the suggested discussion questions which follow each story are helpful and thought-provoking.     

Some of us think of “doctor fiction” as a modern genre.  This anthology definitely calls that notion into question.


Kent State University Press

Place Published

Kent, Ohio


L. Kerr Dunn

Page Count