Diseases of Modern Life was an ERC-funded research project running from 2014-19. Principal Investigator Sally Shuttleworth led the project at the Faculty of English and St Anne's College, Oxford. It explored the medical, literary and cultural responses in the Victorian age to the perceived problems of stress and overwork, anticipating many of the preoccupations of our own era.
In our current ‘Information Age’ we suffer as never before, it is claimed, from the stresses of an overload of information, and the speed of global networks. The Victorians diagnosed similar problems in the nineteenth century. The medic James Crichton Browne spoke in 1860 of the ‘velocity of thought and action’ now required, and of the stresses imposed on the brain forced to process in a month more information ‘than was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime’.
This project explored the phenomena of stress and overload, and other disorders associated in the nineteenth century with the problems of modernity, as expressed in the literature, science and medicine of the period, tracking the circulation of ideas across these diverse areas. It examined ‘diseases from worry and mental strain’, as experienced in the professions, ‘lifestyle’ diseases such as the abuse of alcohol and narcotics, and also diseases from environmental pollution. It returned to the holistic, integrative vision of the Victorians, as expressed in the science and in the great novels of the period, exploring the connections drawn between physiological, psychological and social health, or disease.
Particular areas of focus were: diseases of finance and speculation; diseases associated with particular professions; alcohol and drug addiction amidst the middle classes; travel for health; education and over-pressure in the classroom; and the development of phobias and nervous disorders. The project aimed to break through the compartmentalization of psychiatric, environmental or literary history, and to offer new ways of contextualising the problems of modernity facing us in the twenty-first century.
This project was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) under Grant Agreement Number 340121