Anatomising Bodies

Our theme for Michaelmas term was ‘Anatomising the Body’. We welcomed Agnes Arnold-Forster and Dániel Margócsy to speak about ‘Unlearning empathy? Surgeons, medical students and anatomical dissection in contemporary Britain’ and ‘Worms of people, worms of ships: natural history, medicine and the Navy in the early modern period’ respectively. Agnes’ paper centred on stereotypes of surgeons and how these shaped surgeons’ attitudes to their medical practice. Her oral history interviews shed light on how stereotypes influenced medical students and trainee doctors. She discussed how doctors sometimes argue that detachment helps avoid ‘compassion fatigue’ and how this impacts upon their patients and the profession more broadly. 

Daniel gave a fascinating paper about the early modern belief that worms were one of the most important carriers of disease. Early moderns worried that worms infested the body through the ingestion and digestion of fruit. This led to mounting concern about the consumption of sweet fruits because worms were believed to cause a multitude of afflictions. Daniel pointed to the perceptual slippage between the visible consumption of ships by woodworm and the invisible potential for bodies to be similarly consumed. 

These two papers led to stimulating discussion. Daniel’s paper raised questions relating to the anatomical commonality traversing the boundaries between human/non-human and animate/inanimate entities. Agnes’ paper engaged practising clinicians in the audience about their own personal perceptions of practical anatomical dissection and how this could cultivate rather than unlearn empathy.  

Our graduate papers featured Mobeen Hussain who spoke to us about cultivating healthy bodies and conceptualising exercise for women in colonial India. Her research focused on Urdu language manuals in the first half of the twentieth century which prescribed regimes of exercise, beautification and child-rearing for young Indian women. She discussed reforming the practices of women as a crucial part of Indian prescriptive literature and women’s role in nurturing future generations of strong, prosperous, hard-working citizens. With their focus on women’s reproductive capacities these manuals present anatomised representations of future nationhood. Lucy Havard spoke to us about domestic preservation in the early modern kitchen and how the broader concept of preservation might be explored by situating ideas about preserving food in a wider context. Both papers spanned themes of domesticity and the cultural salience of preserving health and beauty across temporal and geographical borders. 

We would like to thank our speakers and participants for joining us in last term’s events. We are already benefitting from the perspectives last term gave us on our current theme: ‘Fatness and fullness, health and harmony’. There is still time to join us in our final session on 28thFebruary!  

Words by Lucy Havard, Meg Roberts, and Niamh Colbrook.

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