Anxiety and compassion: patients, surgeons and emotions in the past

18 May 2017

The pain, fear, sympathy and compassion experienced by both surgeons and patients during operations before the days of anaesthetic are the focus of a talk at the University of Winchester on 25 May 2017.

Dr Mike Brown, Roehampton University, challenges the view that medical professionals in the past were dispassionate about their patients. He argues that they felt deep emotions for their patients, including fear and pity, due to the extreme pain, post-operative illnesses and often poor chances of survival that patients faced when undergoing surgery.

For patients, undergoing surgery represents an extremely challenging emotional, psychological and physiological experience, producing intense feelings of fear and anxiety, even today in an age of anaesthesia and keyhole surgery. 
Dr Brown draws on the archives of Sir Astley Cooper - perhaps the leading 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 - to show that surgical encounters in the nineteenth century were emotionally richer and more complex than has generally been assumed.
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Professor Louise Hill Curth, Professor of Medical History and Director of the Centre for Medical History at the University of Winchester, said: "The historical study of the emotions is a burgeoning field, but to date, although they have acknowledged the fraught nature of being a surgical patient, particularly in the era before the advent of anaesthesia, few historians have explored the emotional cultures of the surgical encounter."
The talk, Anxiety and Compassion: Emotions and the Surgical Encounter in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain, is hosted by the University's Centre for Medical History and the Modern History Research Centre.
It takes place on Thursday 25 May at 6pm in Room 16, Medecroft, King Alfred Campus, University of Winchester, Sparkford Road, Winchester, Hampshire SO22 4NR. 
The talk is free to attend but booking is essential by emailing


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