Clinical Encounters? Narratives of Doctors and Patients from the Victorians to the Present Day

Module code: EN3199

Module co-ordinator: Dr Claire Brock

  • Since Victorian times, what has it meant to be ill, and how were the unwell treated by the medical profession? 
  • How, in turn, did the patient deal with medical or surgical prescription? 
  • Was the relationship between doctor and patient merely a clinical encounter? 

This interdisciplinary module will introduce you to a wide range of writings about the relationship between the doctor and the patient from the Victorian period to the 21st century. We will begin with the Victorian fetish for ill health, characterised by the sofa-languishing middle-class lady, and move on to the corresponding difficulty of publicly expressing mental illness in autobiographical writing of the time. 

We will look at medical saints and sinners of the 19th and 20th centuries, alongside more recent explorations of the harmful effects of the doctor-patient encounter. Of central concern throughout will be the dynamic nature of the relationship between the medical profession and the patient. The texts you study will be supplemented by films – including The English Surgeon (2009) and The Spirit of ’45 (2013) – and other visual material.

Individual presentations will be an essential part of the course and will allow you to develop your own research interests.

Topics covered

  • Harriet Martineau, Life in the Sick Room (1844)
  • John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1873)
  • Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923)
  • Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924)
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook (1925-1927)
  • Ronald White-Cooper, Call the Doctor: A Country GP Between the Wars. Tales of Courage, Hardship and Hope (2014)
  • AJ Cronin, The Citadel (1937)
  • Robert Graves, They Hanged my Saintly Billy: The Life and Death of Dr William Palmer (1957)
  • David Wootton, Bad Medicine (2006)
  • Rachel Prentice, Bodies in Formation: An Ethnography of Anatomy and Surgical Education (2013)
  • Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (2014)
  • Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (2016).

Learning and Teaching

Weekly, two-hour seminars will introduce students to text and context. Individual presentations will be an essential part of the course and will allow students to develop their own research interests. 


  • Essay, 5,000 words (100%)

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