Susan Wells


Title: Professor of English

University: Temple University


Description of Work:

I am working on a monograph on Robert Burton (1577-1640), the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy. I’m interested is sorting out Burton’s use of Greek, Roman, and early modern medical texts, and in tracing the connections among medicine, rhetoric, and humane letters in his work–and by extension, early modern university cultures. During the time that the Anatomy was written (1620-40), medicine was a recognized profession and academic subject, but medicine was not a fully differentiated scientific discipline. Seeing how medical knowledge circulated among other fields, I’m hoping, will give us a sense of alternate possible relationships among contemporary expert disciplines.

Symposium Submission:

History, Method, and Medical Rhetoric

At the 2015 Symposium on Discourses of Health and Medicine, I would like to make an argument for the use of historical methods; in particular, study of the earlier periods of medicine, before the professionalization of the field in the mid-nineteenth century, has much to teach us. I make this argument in part from self-interest: I would like to have more company doing work in these earlier periods. But I also think that the abandonment of historical work could cut our field off from critical conceptual resources.
Although the earliest work in science studies focused on the founding documents of the scientific revolution, and a lively scholarship in medieval and early modern science continues in other fields, in medical rhetoric published essays, monographs, and conference panels that take up questions of history before the twentieth century are hard to come by. It does not look as if this situation will change. Younger scholars whose dissertations focused on historical topics have often moved into more contemporary work. And, as our field seeks to interact with medical professionals and to influence current practices, it makes sense to work on contemporary issues. While we still see occasional work in historical recovery, such as Wendy Hayden’s treatment of nineteenth century free love feminists, history is a declining area within the studies of medical rhetoric or the discourses of health.

However, studies of medicine as it was learned and practiced before the advent of professionalization can give us kinds of knowledge that we could not obtain in any other way, and that knowledge can be deeply useful as we work to develop our field. A study of the rhetoric of late medieval medicine, one that took seriously the deep integration of Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin sources and scholars at an institution like the 13th century University of Montpelier, would help us to understand how medical communication could offer a point of contact across barriers of language and religion; it also might help lay to rest the myth of a particularly European scientific revolution. Rhetorical work in sixteenth and seventeenth century medical humanism might offer us an alternative picture of the relation between medical and lay discourses, and between medicine and other cultural practices. Early modern physicians integrated the literary and historical texts of antiquity into their practices, and lay readers developed new reading practices to make sense of the printed medical literature now available to them. The moment in early modern culture when scientific information was both distributed widely in print and available to all educated readers in Latin might offer a way to investigate such contemporary issues as the significance of English as a transnational medical language. All of these moments also offer a precedent for looking at how scientific communities respond to exponential increases in the availability of information.

Of course, these elements of early modern culture have become visible to us because of our own experiences. It is also true that European scientific cultures before the nineteenth century are unutterably strange to us: a concept like the Galenic “decretal day,” a day in the course of an illness that prognosticated its outcome, is so alien that it suggests a distinct understanding of disease, of how it develops through time, and even of what time is and how it is punctuated by events. This is not to say that the past is some alien, unknowable territory: it is to say that the elements of early cultures that are not consonant with contemporary problems also offer resources to us as rhetoricians: they demonstrate new ways of developing and verifying knowledge, of devising persuasive exigencies and strategies.

Finally, there is an emerging body of scholarship on the significance of rhetoric for early modern medicine, developing from history of ideas and history of medicine, that can function as a rich resource for work in our field. I am thinking, first, of the work of Nancy Struever, who has done forty years of dauntingly good work on the relation between medicine and rhetoric, beginning with her 1976 book on Vico and ending, for the time being, with the electrifying 2012 collection, co-edited with Stephen Pender, Rhetoric and Medicine in Early Modern Europe (Ashgate). It is really remarkable, and a true sign of the interdisciplinary nature of our field, that investigations by rhetoricians like Struever and Pender intersect with developments within the field of medical history itself. Nancy Siraisi, widely considered the central scholar in early modern medical history, has written widely on such topics as medical orations, the development of correspondence networks among early modern physicians, and the relationship between medicine and rhetoric in early modern learning. Taken together, these bodies of scholarship offer a picture of epistemic rhetoric as a practice that integrated science and other forms of culture. That is a picture we do not want to lose sight of.