Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 June 2021
All the more telling for being an arbitrary and often intimate historical record, poetry provides the primary source for this chapter’s account of nineteenth-century medicine. Poems by John Gibson, Thomas Fessenden, George Crabbe, William Wordsworth, and Humphrey Davy disclose that the practice of medicine, whether by quacks or the learned, was so ineffectual at the start of the century as to allow the Romantics to plausibly argue for the curative effects of poetry and the imagination, both of which became integral to a new science of life. The professional medicine that sprang from this science, however, asserted its autonomy from poetry, most effectively by pathologising such poets as John Keats and Oscar Wilde, who in turn offered their own verse ripostes. Its positivism and ‘hands-on’ diagnostics yielded new conceptions of the body and touch that Alfred Tennyson, G. M. Hopkins, and Walt Whitman each reflect upon in their poetry. Finally, the growing acceptance of the germ theory of disease enabled pathologies of art as illness that are variously elaborated upon and joked about by Edward Lear, Henry Savile Clerk, Wilde, and Ronald Ross, who also reaches for poetry to record his sublimely momentous discovery of the malaria pathogen in 1896.