Medicine at the Margins

Friday, April 15th 2011, University of Glamorgan

Medicine at the Margins is the RCLAS Conference 2011, organised in partnership with the Glamorgan History Research Unit.  Conference sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and by the International Gothic Association.

Plenary Speaker: Dr Lauren Kassell, Pembroke College Cambridge

Throughout the history of medicine there have always been knowledges and practices considered to be (or portrayed as) outside the normal or orthodox: these include early modern popular and magical healing, mesmerism, ‘quack’ remedies, and alternative or complementary medicine. They have all existed at the boundaries of acceptability and legitimacy, and these boundaries have frequently shifted. Similarly, some illnesses have placed patients beyond the margins of acceptability. Mental health problems, sexually-transmitted diseases and conditions incurring great disfigurement have all been intertwined with social concepts of the taboo.

What exactly can be found at these margins of medicine, and who determined them? How did practitioners and patients understand unorthodox practices, and how did this affect the treatment choices they made? Were patients and practitioners prepared to subvert social and cultural expectations in order to treat disease? How far have patients hidden or disguised the symptoms of a taboo illness, and how have doctors reacted to patients with shameful or forbidden illnesses? How were such practices culturally represented?

This conference offers the opportunity to bring fresh insight to the energetic debates about the concepts of ‘orthodox’ and ‘unorthodox’ in medicine by exploring the peripheries of the medical experience through history and its cultural forms. We welcome proposals for papers on any of the following themes, or others which potential participants recognise as relevant to the conference:

  • Relationships between the medical orthodoxy and laity
  • The impact of folklore in medical history
  • Sufferers’ experiences and narratives of unorthodox medicine
  • Geographical margins, such as rural areas and provincial towns
  • Concepts of health, well-being and disability through time
  • Taboo illnesses or afflictions
  • Self-inflicted injury
  • Status illnesses or injuries
  • Representations of health and medicine in art and literature
  • Medicine and colonial expansion
  • Medicine and ethnology

Please send proposals of no more than 200 words, with a brief personal CV of 50 words by September 30th 2010 to Dr Alun Withey or Professor Andrew Smith.  E-mail: Dr Alun Withey, History ( and Professor Andrew Smith, RCLAS (

Conference Organisers: Professor Andy Smith (RCLAS Co-Director); Dr Alun Withey (History Research Unit); Dr Fiona Reid (History Research Unit).