Did 19th Century Doctors Feel Pity?

University of Roehampton gets half a million grant to find out


University of Roehampton

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The sympathy, pity, pain and fear that 19th century surgeons and their patients experienced in the days before anaesthetic was used will be explored by academics at the University of Roehampton, thanks to a £570,000 research grant.

The Wellcome Trust funding will support in-depth research into the emotions experienced by surgeons and patients during operations in both civil and military hospitals.

Dr Michael Brown from the Department of Humanities will lead the four year study. Medical humanities research is already well established at the University, this project is intended to contribute significantly towards its growing reputation for excellence in the subject.

The extensive project will challenge the conventional view that surgeons, including those in the Napoleonic Wars and First World War, were dispassionate about their patients – now known as clinical detachment.

Dr Brown’s initial research suggests surgeons actually felt fear, pity and many other emotions for their patients, due to the extreme pain, post-operation illnesses and likely chance of survival people suffered.

Dr Brown said: “We will attempt to transform understanding of historical surgery by exploring the emotional landscape of civil and military operating theatres in the 19th century. We’re taking a major step forward in our understanding of people in the medical profession, and how they engaged with their patients.

“Historians have generally emphasised the emotional detachment of surgeons at that time, but I believe their mindset was more complex. There was no real pain medication, and as intelligent and ‘sensible’ gentlemen, surgeons did sympathise with their patients, feeling pity for them and anxiety on their behalf. We will bring clarity to the extent of these feelings and examine how they subsequently shaped surgeons’ professional identities and their representation in popular culture. Our modern image of the detached professional surgeon might not always have been the case.

“We’ll also examine in detail the differences in emotional connection between civil and military surgeons, and whether the emotional landscape changed once anaesthetic become widely used in the 1840s.”

The results of the research will lead to conferences and workshops, including events at the Royal College of Surgeons, which will encourage current surgeons to talk about emotion in their own working lives.

Extensive use will be made of surviving hospital and military records and archive documentation including records in the National Archives, St Bart’s Hospital Archives and Museum, Royal College of Surgeons and Royal College of Physicians archives, the Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museum collections, and the British Library. Books, diaries, teaching notes and letters will be used to develop a narrative around the lives and feelings of surgeons at the time.

Currently, while there is general research into emotions surrounding pre-anaesthetic era surgery, little has been written on the specifics and cultural ideology or issues around surgical rhetoric or performance in the operating theatre and in advance of the operation itself

August 21, 2015