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How romantics and poets can help medicine

SECONDS into my chat with Dr Clark Lawlor, reader in English literature at Northumbria University, he stops me in my tracks with a new word.

Dr Clark Lawlor is studying the ebb and flow of fashionable diseases from the Restoration to the 1830s
Dr Clark Lawlor is studying the ebb and flow of fashionable diseases from the Restoration to the 1830s

SECONDS into my chat with Dr Clark Lawlor, reader in English literature at Northumbria University, he stops me in my tracks with a new word. It’s new to me, anyway – “thinspiration”.

Thinspiration websites, he tells me, proliferate on the internet and it turns out he’s not wrong. Google offers more than 2.3 million sites.

If you want to see before-and-after photos of young women (it’s usually young women) who were plump and now are not, that’s where you go.

Clearly aimed at women, the idea is that if you wish to shed pounds, you will draw inspiration from these stirring examples of weight loss.

The implication is that with thinness comes attractiveness and hence happiness.

But what about healthiness? Thinness, as Dr Lawlor points out, isn’t always akin to good health. Some thinspiration sites, he reckons, effectively praise anorexia.

Where was thinspiration a few years ago? Where, for that matter, was anorexia? These questions and many like them will be addressed by Dr Lawlor in a major study of fashionable diseases which has attracted more than £250,000 in funding from the Leverhulme Trust.

Over three years, starting in January, Dr Lawlor and a team from Newcastle and Northumbria universities will delve into literature, medicine and culture to see why some diseases were all the rage in the period 1660 to 1832 (the Restoration of the English monarchy to the Great Reform Act) and compare the situation then with the present day.

Joining Dr Lawlor will be Northumbria colleagues Prof Allan Ingram and Dr Leigh Wetherall Dickson, who have written on insanity and the representation of disease, and Dr Jonathan Andrews from Newcastle University who researches into the history of mental illness.

“This project will address a cultural and medical phenomenon that is still little understood, particularly in its historical dimensions,” says Dr Lawlor.

“No major project has yet answered the question of how fashionable diseases come to be formed, maintained and removed from history.”

And he adds: “Disease needs to be looked at in its socio-cultural context.”

A good example of how some diseases have been romanticised throughout history, he says, is consumption.

“Consumption, or tuberculosis as we know it now, was once thought to be a disease that was good for poets.

“If you were seen to be thin and wasting away, it was viewed as a form of authenticity – that you were suffering for your art.

“The disease wastes away your lungs but you feel little pain and it takes a while to develop.

“Some people seemed to die after displaying very few symptoms so in the 18th Century they thought it was a disease of refinement.”

High-profile victims included the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne, who wrote Tristram Shandy, and the poet John Keats, a consumption fatality at 25.

Dr Lawlor reckons Shelley “had a touch of it” but he drowned at the age of 29.

“Live fast, die young,” he says, was a mantra as easily applicable to the Romantic poets as to the rock stars of modern times.

Byron may have wished he had it, apparently looking at his wan self in a mirror one day and remarking: “How interesting the ladies will find me. I think I’ve got a consumption.”

How odd, you might think, that a killer disease should have had such allure. Under its modern name of tuberculosis, which is curable, it has none.

But the tendency for ill health and fashion to get wrapped up together isn’t dead.

The fashion industry and anorexia have been linked in recent times and what about heroin chic, a phrase coined to describe the appearance of catwalk models whose bloodless complexions and shadowed eyes seemed to mimic the effects of hard drug addiction?

Dr Lawlor says the fashionable illness project came to him when he was working on an earlier study of depression which resulted in a fascinating book, From Melancholia to Prozac: a history of depression*.

It shows how depression has been represented differently down the ages. In Aristotle’s time, says Dr Lawlor, “melancholia was the heroic illness of the day, the disease of great men, intellectuals”.

Writers in the 18th Century – some 2,000 years later – read the classics and aspired to this inspirational condition.

Nowadays we hear how a chemical imbalance in the brain can result in depression. In times gone by it was believed black bile from the spleen could cloud the brain and give you “the vapours”.

“There’s a certain amount of social trending with disease and this research will shed light on how different diseases are tackled by society,” says Dr Lawlor.

References to affliction in literature probably work like the rings in a tree. Gout, like consumption and melancholia, once loomed large but is now seldom talked about.

Twenty five years ago Aids was all over the news; much less so now. And what of SARS, swine flu or Gulf War Syndrome? Did they go away or fall off the media radar?

Dr Lawlor, who is married to a GP, says: “We’re not saying we can cure the common cold but by understanding how diseases are represented, maybe we’ll have something helpful to say to policy-makers.

“Treatment has to exist in the social world so I think it’s helpful to move away from the idea that a disease is just a medical entity.”

:: From Melancholia to Prozac: a history of depression by Clark Lawlor is published by Oxford University Press at £14.99

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