Book(s) of the Month

Since my earlier post on Phrenology, I have been reading a couple of books about similarly obscure causes which would have been part of the package of most self-respecting radicals of the the Victorian period. Both involve challenges to medical science and concerns about the rights of private citizens in the 19th century.

Lunacy and Liberty

The first is Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England by Sarah Wise. The publishers promise us “Gaslight tales of rooftop escapes, men and women snatched in broad daylight, patients shut in coffins, a fanatical cult known as the Abode of Love…” and we get our money’s worth. It deals with the regular panics about sane people being locked away in lunatic asylums in the UK. For many, the newly emerging profession of the ‘mad-doctor’ threatened the whole idea of English liberty. Using twelve detailed case-studies – not unreasonably described as ‘shocking’ – and covering issues of sexuality, inherited madness, financial greed and fraudulence, it “chillingly evokes the black motives at the heart of the phenomenon of the ‘inconvenient person”. Beautifully written, absolutely full of the forgotten and the footnoted, the book brings the Victorian period vividly to life.



The second book continues my theme within this blog of history rhyming if not repeating. There has been an upsurge over the last decade in the anti-vaccination movement around the world. Here in New Zealand, a film and a documentary series on anti-vaccination have both been partially banned from public showing. Much of the furore in recent times has been caused by the fraudulently produced work of Dr Andrew Wakefield, who made completely unfounded claims about links between autism and the MMR vaccine, which led to him being struck off the medical register in the UK. But in the 19th century the anti-vaccine movement – mostly battling against the introduction of compulsory smallpox vaccination – was a substantial part of a package of causes tackling the burgeoning science and health professions. Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England ((1853-1907) by Nadja Durbach is a very insightful look at this earlier occurrence of concerns over vaccination, but considering it within the much broader context of concerns about the safety of the body and the role of the modern state, and specifically issues of government intervention in the private lives of its citizens. An excellent analysis from the past with great relevance to the present.


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