Anxiety and Compassion: Emotions and the Surgical Encounter in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain

Thursday 25 May
Room 16, Medecroft, King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester Hampshire SO22 4NR

​Dr Mike Brown from Roehampton University will be giving this talk.

The historical study of the emotions is a burgeoning field, but to date it has made relatively little impact on the historiography of surgery. This is despite the fact that surgery represents one of the most profoundly challenging emotional, psychological and physiological experiences that, as a patient, it is possible to undergo. Becoming an object of surgical expertise and subject to direct physical intervention can produce intense feelings of fear and anxiety, even in an age of anaesthesia and keyhole surgery. In general, while historians have acknowledged the fraught nature of being a surgical patient, particularly in the era before the advent of anaesthesia, few have explored the emotional cultures of the surgical encounter. Moreover, what work that has been undertaken on the emotional disposition of early modern surgeons themselves has emphasised dispassion above all else. This paper will demonstrate that the surgical encounter was, in fact, emotionally richer and more complex than has generally been assumed. It will draw in particular on the archives of Sir Astley Cooper, perhaps the leading operative surgeon of the early nineteenth century and a man who received hundreds of letters from patients and left behind numerous case books recording his clinical encounters. Focussing on the twin poles of anxiety and compassion it considers the surgical encounter as an emotionally intersubjective experience shaped, in a profound way, by the contemporary culture of sensibility.

This event is co-hosted with Centre for Modern History Research.

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