Stomach Problems in Britain c.1800-1950: A Socio-Cultural History. Ian Miller (CHSTM, University of Manchester)
Sponsored by the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine supported by the Wellcome Trust
Alongside the infectious diseases and epidemics which ravaged nineteenth century Britain, there existed various highly problematic debilitating, incurable chronic diseases often located in inaccessible bodily areas that could not easily be understood or cured by medico-scientific advance. Digestive ailments acted as significant chronic health problems which captured the public imagination, feeding a demand for popular literature on digestive health. Within numerous popular pamphlets and lectures aimed at a non-specialist audience, physicians were able to emphasise aspects of their traditional roles by asserting holistic concepts of the body and their knowledge of man’s intricate relationship to his environment, at a time when these traditional forms of knowledge were coming under pressure. It also allowed them to tackle wider socio-cultural health problems by focusing on the modern, ‘natural’ individual negotiating his stomach’s health in an ‘artificial’ urban and civilised life. I shall first explain why the British placed such great importance on their stomachs to the extent that its medical problems were regularly raised to the status of Britain’s ‘national disease.’ An increasing emphasis on the nervous system by contemporaries such as John Abernethy had allocated the stomach a prioritised location within the body as well as endowing it with pivotal functions towards the maintenance of the system. Within his model, the sympathetic relationships of the nervous system meant that the stomach might be considered responsible for medical problems as wide-ranging as blindness, skin conditions and insanity. The phrase “national disease” implies collective implications. Abdominal disorder was employed to interpret themes including the location of the body within shifting processes of civilisation and industrialisation, and the location of national health within this. Stomach illness was primarily a problem of urban areas, and anxiety over the national problem naturally increases as urbanisation and civilisation “progresses.”
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