Medicine and Literature in the Nineteenth Century

Module code: EN3155

Module co-ordinator: Dr Claire Brock

This interdisciplinary module will introduce you to a wide range of writing about medicine in the nineteenth century and how contemporary medical developments fascinated writers from a variety of genres. We will examine fictional works by well-known nineteenth-century writers such as George Eliot as well as works by author-medics such as Anton Chekhov and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the now less well-known but extremely popular Victorian novelist Charles Reade. 

Alongside fictional representations of medicine, we will look at the work of doctors such as William Acton, whose provocative pronouncements on prostitution emphasised the fine line between medical treatise and literary invention.

Of central concern will representations of the doctor at a time of increasing professionalization; the woman doctor, her supporters and detractors; fictional and non-fictional depictions of contemporary medical controversies, such as surgical anaesthesia; and the fight against disease through increasingly scientific medicine. Visual representations will be used to illuminate textual material.

Set texts are likely to include:

  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon, A Doctor‘s Wife (1864)
  • Wilkie Collins, Heart and Science (1883)
  • William Acton, Prostitution Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities, with Proposals for the Mitigation and Prevention of its Attendant Evils (1857)
  • Anton Chekhov, Ivanov (1887) and A Life in Letters (Bartlett and Phillips, 2004)
  • Arthur Conan Doyle, Round the Red Lamp (1894) and other medical writings
  • Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts, (1881; first performed in Britain in 1891)

Students will be encouraged to make use of the library's digital databases to enhance their reading and understanding of the period, especially:

PubMed Central contains the entire run of the British Medical Journal (1840- ). Extracts of other relevant material will be provided in photocopy.


Weekly two-hour seminars will introduce students to texts and contexts. Individual presentations will be an essential part of the module and will allow you to develop your own research interests in the period.

By the end of the module, you will be able to...

  • Explore and evaluate the representation of medicine and the doctor in nineteenth-century literature and thought
  • Place medical writing and writing about medicine firmly in their literary, social and historical contexts
  • Apply a sophisticated understanding of gender and genre in both fictional and non-fictional prose


  • One 5,000-word essay