The Body and Pseudoscience in the Long Nineteenth Century Conference


The conference took place on Saturday 18 June 2016 at Newcastle University. It was launched by Dr. James Mussell, Leeds University, who gave the keynote presentation on ‘Print Presence in the Electrical Age: Oliver Lodge and the Pseudoscience of Media and Mediation’. This focused on the way Lodge negotiated the pseudoscientific spaces of late nineteenth and early twentieth century culture, looking at the complementary relationship between body and spirit, form and content. Although Lodge believed in the uniting potential of spirit, this rested on the properties of matter as exemplified in his publication, Raymond (1916), which was his way of keeping his dead son alive. This stimulating presentation set the scene for a day that considered the different ways that the scientific and pseudoscientific were negotiated through the body.

The interdisciplinary nature of the conference was evident by the mix of papers from English Literature, Art History, History of Science, Philosophy and the Wellcome Library. The first panel of the day, ‘Scientific Credibility and the Human Body’, included papers on the pseudoscientific treatment of ‘milk leg’, Victorian fad diets, and the literary representation of ways in which phrenology and physiognomy were used to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. These papers addressed issues of how the body was read in the nineteenth century and the different ways in which scientific ‘truths’ emerged. The panel, ‘Affective Responses to the Visual’, considered the intellectual exchanges of the worlds of art and fiction with science, highlighting the problem of ascribing meaning to visual changes in the body as well as the dynamic of the visual and the verbal in the pursuit of sympathy. ‘(In)Corporeality and Nineteenth-Century Forces’ was a panel comprising papers on the representation of mesmerism in periodicals and in fiction and William James’s experiments with anaesthesia. These papers emphasised the slippery nature of what was deemed ‘scientific’ or ‘pseudoscientific’ and how the latter contributed to knowledge about the human mind and body. The final panel, ‘Medical (Pseudo)Science: Mind and Body’ explored the hinterlands of chemistry and medical science in Edith Nesbit’s short stories and the ‘science’ of phrenology as a tool for self-improvement, raising questions about the role of the mind and body in the construction of scientific knowledge.

The plenary session was led by Dr. Edmund Richardson, Durham University, with a case study of the famous nineteenth-century medium, Daniel Dunglas Home. This generated lively discussion on the distinction between the scientific and the pseudoscientific, and why so many eminent scientists were prepared to risk their reputations in the search for knowledge and truth. That nineteenth-century pseudoscience remains a fruitful area of research suggests that it can still contribute to discourses on knowledge of the self through reading the body.



‘Mother’s Milk: (Pseudo)-Scientific Discourses on Breastfeeding in Victorian Literature and Culture’


Image 27-03-2016 at 14.43

The next meeting of the Research Group will take place on Wednesday 13 April 2016 at the Lit and Phil Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, between 6.00 pm and 7.30 pm. Dr Jessica Cox, Brunel University London, will present a paper on ‘Mother’s Milk: (Pseudo)-Scientific Discourses on Breastfeeding in Victorian Literature and Culture’.

The issue of breastfeeding tends to provoke heated debate, as demonstrated recently by comments made by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and singer Adele’s angry response. The origins of many of these debates can be found in nineteenth-century discourses on breastfeeding. The benefits and hazards of breastfeeding versus so-called ‘artificial’ feeding, and the advantages and potential dangers of employing a wet nurse attracted strong opinions, from Queen Victoria to Mrs Beeton, as well as in the medical journals and advice books of the day.

This paper explores nineteenth-century writing on breastfeeding. While some of this anticipates contemporary recommendations, much of it has no scientific basis, despite its claim to the contrary. Charles Vine, F.R.C.S., author of Mother and Child: Practical Hints on Nursing, the Management of Children and the Treatment of the Breast (1868) was a strong advocate of maternal breastfeeding, arguing that ‘It was beneficently ordered by the Creator that the child for a certain period after birth should be dependent on the maternal nourishment for its support’. Employing both his own medical training and religious authority to support his argument, Vine’s work demonstrates the difficulty for the Victorian woman in contesting much of the advice which was impressed upon them, sanctioned as it appeared to be by both the medical establishment and religious authorities. The paper examines some of the advice available to the nineteenth-century mother, as well as women’s own attitudes towards and experiences of feeding their infants.

Everyone welcome. Refreshments provided.

For further information please contact Pat Beesley at

Midwifery in the Nineteenth Century: Men, Microbes and Misrepresentation

Wednesday, 17 February 2016, 6.00 pm – 7.30 pm, at the Lit and Phil Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

Dr. Tricia Cresswell, Public Health Doctor and Creative Writing MA student at Newcastle University will present a paper and lead a discussion on ‘Midwifery in the Nineteenth Century’.

A brief overview will be presented covering the emerging understanding (or not) of maternal mortality in the nineteenth century and approaches to reducing death in childbirth. The impact of the male midwife / surgical obstetrician / general practitioner on the traditional practice of female midwifery in England will be considered alongside the impact of the professionalisation of childbirth. Reference will be made to colonial myths about childbirth originating in Canada as an example of wider cultural influences on practice. The portrayal of childbirth in nineteenth-century novels will then be discussed.

Those attending may wish to bring along a short reading about childbirth from a novel set or written in the nineteenth century.

L0018481 Carciature of a man-midwife as a split figure Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Carciature of a man-midwife as a split figure, left side female, right side male 1793 By: and Cruikshank, IsaacMan-midwifery dissected ; or, the obstetric family-instructor ... In fourteen letters. Addressed to A. Hamilton ... Occasioned by certain doctrines contained in his letters to Dr. W. Osborn. By John Blunt [i.e. S.W. Fores] / Samuel William Fores Published: 1793. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Refreshments provided. All are welcome.

For further information, contact Pat Beesley at


‘Midwifery in the Nineteenth Century: Men, Microbes and Misrepresentation’

The next meeting of the Research Group will take place on Wednesday 17 February between 6.00 and 7.30 at the Lit and Phil Library. Tricia Cresswell, public health doctor and MA student in Creative Writing at Newcastle University will be talking about ‘Midwifery in the Nineteenth Century: Men, Microbes and Misrepresentation’. Further information to follow. Everyone is welcome.

Grotesqueries and Fashion: The Gothic Vagaries of the Regency ‘Gentleman’

Wednesday, 2 December, 6.00 – 7.30 pm at the Lit and Phil Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

Dr. Alison Younger, University of Sunderland, will present a paper entitled ‘Grotesqueries and Fashion: The Gothic Vagaries of the Regency ‘Gentleman’.

In John Badcock’s ‘Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase the Pit or Bon-ton (1823)’, the writer (pseudonymously known as John Bee) offers a circuitous, and somewhat convoluted definition of what one might expect an English gentleman to be. Having established what a gentleman is not, (for example, a gambler cannot be a gentleman, though a gentleman can be a gambler), Bee, or Badcock suggests that a gentleman is one who is suitably educated in ‘Englishness’, and has genteel accomplishments, such as grammatical skills and rhetorical sprezzatura, which allow him to converse on any subject, in any circumstance and in any setting.

In terms of physical appearance, according to Badcock, the Homme com il faut, or ‘man as he ought to be’: ‘must have 32 teeth, thick curly hair, and calves six inches diameter each. Around both ankles, placed across should measure the same’. The ‘manly’ form of the superlative English gentleman marked him as part of an élite fraternity which was based, in part on the exclusion of those less physically endowed, and, therefore, less gentlemanly and indubitably less ‘English’. He should, according to phrenological discourses, have a ‘large cranium’, designed to house his larger-than-usual brain, and, anatomically have the physical system to sustain it (including a good stomach, an active liver, and, large heart). Specifically excluded from the category of ‘the English Gentleman’ were those who were stunted, narrow-chested, excitable, easily wearied, or inefficient, as these qualities were associated with women, the lower classes, Jews, Papists, Spaniards, the French, and the figure of the Dandy.

As this paper will argue, the Gothic mode allowed for the free range of the imagination and the experience of new sensations; it became a means to fulfil perverse desires, indulge in the grotesque, and play out dark fantasies. In this sense, the sensation-seeking, somewhat perverse, and fantastical dandy could be viewed as a Gothic figure. Outré and ostentatious in his dress or manners, the dandy and his eighteenth century counterpart: the flamboyantly attired and elaborately bewigged ‘Macaroni Club’; thus named for their taste for foreign foods and fashions represented a form of collective gothic anxiety to the gentlemanly classes, schooled, as they were in sportsmanship, courage, gallantry, hardiness, [and] self-discipline. To the ‘manly’ English gentleman, the Macaroni, and his French equivalent the Muscadin (based on his preference for musky scents), and latterly the Dandy came to be seen as the epitome of luxury and effeminacy in a country in which an elegant disinterest in fashion was being lauded in aristocrats and the emergent middle-classes alike. An arriviste, inauthentic social parvenu who haunted elegant assembly rooms and masquerade balls, the jigging, ambling and lisping macaroni in his modish continental fashions and powdered toupée, was considered a potential contaminant to British manliness and thus was satirised, caricatured and generally derided. Equally Dandies (known also as Exquisites and Fashionables) were seen as a vulgar, middle class affront to manliness and the aristocratic classes. To engage in such activities resulted in imprecation of effeminacy being levied at the perpetrator via biting satires and grotesque caricatures which marked the dandy as an effeminate and Frenchified sodomite who was, by virtue of his transgressive nature, monstrous and grotesque.

This paper will use a variety of media including poetry from William Maginn, and Edward Goulburn, extracts from conduct magazines, satirical caricatures from Cruikshank, and plates from Andrew White Tuer’s ‘The Follies and Fashions of our Grandfathers’ to indicate how dandies and macaronis were labelled as monstrous soulless façades by the discourses of phrenology, physiognomy and fashion due to their deeply unsettling presence in a period which lauded ‘manliness’, Englishness and chivalric masculinity.

Everyone is welcome. Refreshments available.

More information from Pat Beesley at's Dandy

Edith Nesbit’s Dreadful Researches

The next meeting of the Pseudo/Sciences Research Group will be on Wednesday 28 October 2015 at 6.00 pm – 7.30 pm in the Loftus Room at the Lit and Phil Library, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Dr. Emily Alder, Edinburgh Napier University, will introduce this session on ‘Edith Nesbit’s Dreadful Researches’

Edith Nesbit is best known for her children’s stories (Five Children and It, The Railway Children), but also wrote a number of supernatural and horror stories. We will read two of these, ‘The Three Drugs’ (1908) and ‘The Five Senses’ (1909), which explore ‘dreadful researches which tend to merge the chemist and biologist in the alchemist and magician’ (‘Five Senses’). Ambitious scientists seek access to new and dangerous knowledge through chemical self-experimentation, with terrible results. Theoretically perfect, their experiments are hampered by the fallibility of human bodies and minds. We will also consider how the instrumental role of a medium’s body in the seance is translated into a laboratory setting, and related questions of how laboratories and seances worked to construct gender identities.

The two short stories and an accompanying paper by Keir Waddington, ‘More Like Cooking than Science: Narrating the Inside of the British Medical Laboratory, 1880-1914’, can be downloaded here.

Five Senses

Three Drugs


Please come along to what promises to be a very interesting and stimulating session.

Everyone welcome, wine and nibbles available.

Any queries? Please contact Pat Beesley at