Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
University of Southern California
Reading Disease: The Novel and the Medical Imagination from 1813-1892

My project contextualizes current narratives of the COVID-19 pandemic by analyzing them alongside nineteenth-century medical treatises and works of fiction. I argue that the way we think about time and space is historically contingent and has a profound impact on our understanding of epidemics. How we visualize epidemic disease moving through space and time depends not only on the state of medical and scientific thought, but also on the conventions of familiar narratives. I will examine the transition from miasma theory to germ theory that took place in the mid-nineteenth century and how this shift was informed by the popularity of literary genres such as the industrial novel and the detective novel. Understanding how the creation of narratives shapes our scientific understandings of disease is essential to acknowledging the limits of cultural and political narratives, not only historically, but also currently in the United States and the United Kingdom -- countries with two of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world. At the University of Edinburgh and the Wellcome library in London, I will have access to the archives of the preeminent medical institutions in the world during most of the nineteenth century, which includes an extensive collection of papers relating to Joseph Lister, pioneer of antiseptic surgery and William Smith Greenfield, known for his work on the anthrax virus. With the mentorship of Dr. Katherine Inglis, director of the medicine and literature program, as well as assistance from Sarah Chan, director of the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, I will combine my historical research with current techniques of narrative medicine to suggest that we should learn from past narratives of disease in order to fight the current pandemic – not only with scientific data, but also with carefully chosen words.