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Anxiety and compassion: emotions and the surgical encounter in early 19th-century Britain

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The next seminar in the 2017–18 History of Pre-Modern Medicine seminar series takes place on Tuesday 7 November.

Portrait of Astley Cooper.

Sir Astley Paston Cooper. Stipple engraving by H. Meyer, 1819, after F. Simoneau. Wellcome Collection iconographic no. 2039i.

Speaker: Dr Michael Brown (University of Roehampton), ‘Anxiety and compassion: emotions and the surgical encounter in early 19th-century Britain’

The historical study of the emotions is a burgeoning field, but to date it has made relatively little impact on the historiography of surgery. This is despite the fact that surgery represents one of the most profoundly challenging emotional, psychological and physiological experiences that, as a patient, it is possible to undergo.  Becoming an object of surgical expertise and subject to direct physical intervention can produce intense feelings of fear and anxiety, even in an age of anaesthesia and keyhole surgery. In general, while historians have acknowledged the fraught nature of being a surgical patient, particularly in the era before the advent of anaesthesia, few have explored the emotions of surgeons themselves or the emotional cultures of the surgical encounter as a whole. What work that has been undertaken on the emotional disposition of early modern surgeons has emphasised dispassion above all else. This paper will demonstrate that the surgical encounter was, in fact, emotionally richer and more complex than has generally been assumed. It will draw in particular on the archives of Sir Astley Cooper, one of the leading operative surgeons of the early 19th century and a man who received hundreds of letters from patients and left behind numerous case books recording his clinical encounters. Focusing especially on feelings of anxiety and compassion, it considers the surgical encounter as an emotionally intersubjective experience that was shaped, in a profound way, by a contemporary culture of sensibility.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

Doors open at 6pm, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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