The mass observation (and experimentation) carried out in the newly widespread asylums and hospitals for the insane, meant that the nineteenth century saw an increasing focus by medical practitioners on the ways in which mental illness might affect the body of the patient. These diverse effects ranged from the functional paralyses and anaesthesias of hysteria, through the problems generated by self-starvation and attempted suicide to degeneration through alcoholism and “morphinomania.” Observation often led to classification, with the creation of new psychiatric diagnoses based on bodily damage, including anorexia nervosa, suicidal mania and trichotillomania (hair-plucking). Yet, paradoxically, treatments might also cause bodily damage, from the extreme approach of major or minor surgical intervention to side-effects of treatment, including nausea, vomiting and illness induced by force-feeding and drug intervention, or injury caused by mechanical restraint.forcefeeding2.JPG

The problematic discourse of the Victorian body spread well beyond the asylum, reaching the public domain in a complicated and contradictory dialogue where both prevention and active encouragement of bodily damage occurred in different fields. While the freak show celebrated the unusual or aberrant body, increasing possibilities opened up within aesthetic surgery, allowing pursuit of the apparently beautiful norm. Lunatics, hysterics and freaks were threatening in their very physicality; visibly rejecting the norm through their damaged or aberrant bodies, their differences were read anthropologically as evidence of either primitivism or degeneration, both notions which held implications of gender, race and social class.

For those receiving medical treatment, social, political and cultural issues were inter-related in both diagnosis and the ways in which a patient’s symptoms were expressed; in the public domain, medical ideas and terminology entered social and political dialogue creating such “damaged” body types as the corpulent criminal, or the mutilated (circumcised) Jew. Both inside and outside the asylum, ideals and mutilations of the physical body were heavily gendered: particular forms of bodily damage were represented as male or female, reflecting social and political concerns. Focusing on the ways in which damage to the body was gendered in the nineteenth century will provide insight into the ways in which bodily disfigurement might be reinterpreted as injuring society.


Image: Dr. William Whittington Herbert force-feeding an asylum patient, 1894. Wellcome Library London

Banner Images: Wellcome Library, London except far right: Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum
Banner Design: Sharon Lockwood