Coyer, Megan, Literature, Medicine and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817–1858

Megan Coyer, Literature, Medicine and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817–1858 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2017) 246 pp. £70 Hb. ISBN: 978–1–4744–0562

Megan Coyer’s Literature, Medicine and the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press: Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 1817–1858 examines the relationship between medical culture and the periodical press in the early nineteenth century, focusing on the cross-fertilization of medical and literary ideas through the example of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, as periodical culture was fast developing, Edinburgh was the centre of medical education and research in Britain. But as Coyer explains, the periodical press, in particular Blackwood’s and The Edinburgh Magazine, did not convey the same image of the medical field and medical practice. By showing how these periodicals promoted different medical cultures – Blackwood’s valuing more human feeling than its competitor – Coyer traces the development of new modes of popular medical writing and the making of an idealised figure of the literary medical man. In doing so, the medical culture which permeated contemporary periodicals took an active part in the shaping of Romantic literary ideologies, as Coyer argues, following in the footsteps of Sharon Ruston’s Creating Romanticism (2013). Thus, Blackwood’s ‘Romantic ideology’ (7) participated in the emergence of nineteenth-century medical humanism at a time when Scottish medicine climaxed.

Literature and Medicine in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical Press looks at the medical writers who contributed to Blackwood’s and developed both their medical and literary careers, especially between its founding in 1817 and the death of William Blackwood in 1834: William Pulteney Alison, D M Moir, Robert Macnish, Samuel Warren, William Dunlop, John Howison, Robert Ferguson and Robert Gooch. The book starts with a short survey of the medical content and medical contributors to The Edinburgh Magazine, before the founding of Blackwood’s (Chapter One). In Chapter Two, Coyer highlights the way in which the tale of terror provided a new perspective on the medical case histories that generally appeared in The Edinburgh Magazine, offering in particular the patient’s viewpoint on trauma rather than that of an authoritative observer. Coyer reads the tale of terror as ‘a form of hybrid ‘medico-popular’ writing’ (37), blurring boundaries between literature and medicine. The stress on the Gothic in such first-person narratives and the focus on the patient both ‘marks a significant shift in the treatment of medical subject matter’ and ‘represents a significant innovation in Gothic form’ (43). The rise of (medical) realism in Gothic tales had been traced by Tim Killick back to the medical case histories published in The Edinburgh Monthly Magazine and early numbers of Blackwood’s (in his British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale (2008)). However, they failed to take into consideration the significance of point of view, which Coyer especially analyses.

As Coyer argues, the Gothic aesthetic of the genre, with its portraits of human suffering, offering ‘a potential poignant perspective from which to critique medico-scientific objectivity’, may be viewed as ‘a subversion of the developmental trajectory of the medical case history of the nineteenth century’ (47–8). Coyer looks at the writings of John Howison, William Dunlop and Robert Macnish, confronting their literary pieces and professional speeches, so as to gauge the weight of medical sensationalism (Dunlop) or the need for medical professionals to keep the figure of the man of letters away from that of the medical one (Moir and Macnish). Still, the way in which these Blackwood’s contributors participated in the transformation of the new ideal of the physician or surgeon as a man of feeling is significant and further examined in Chapter Three, which focuses on Moir as a literary surgeon and the rise of a ‘redemptive humanism’ (90) which emerged after the Burke and Hare case. Showing how Blackwood’s became a significant breeding ground for a counter-discourse criticizing the ‘March of Intellect’, Coyer points out how Moir shaped his ‘medico-literary identity’, writing fiction much inspired by John Galt’s (such as in The Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeit (1828)) at a time when the Burke and Hare story was sometimes used to promote anatomical study (in such titles as the anonymous Murderers of the Close (1829), for instance). Moir’s medical practitioners, Coyer contends, thus paved the way for the medical man of the highest ideals typically found in Victorian literature (Coyer only refers to realist novels, however, from Martineau’s Deerbrook (1839) to Trollope’s Dr Thorne (1858) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871)), bridging the gap between Georgian satire of the medical profession and Victorian idealisation of the medical professional.

In Chapter Four, Coyer looks at Samuel Warren’s Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician as a good instance of the ‘construction of a professional man of feeling’ (125). She relates the history of the publication of Warren’s series (originally intended for The New Monthly Magazine), first believed to be a Blackwoodian hoax. Throughout the series, Warren’s physician appears both as ‘a collector of traumatic narratives’ (147) and as a medical practitioner experiencing trauma. By handling the codes and conventions of the Gothic in particular, Coyer suggests, Warren therefore ‘manages to highlight the late physician’s sensibility and his professional authority both together’ (147) – a point which may perhaps demand further demonstration – launching a fashion for sensible physicians found in the Monthly Magazine and New Monthly Magazine in the 1830s and 1840s. Coyer furthers her study through looking at John Gregory’s medical ethics and his stress on feelings in medical practice.

In Chapter Five, Coyer turns to W O Alison, Robert Gooch and Robert Ferguson’s medical humanism to examine its relation with conservative politics. Looking at their contributions to the debates on public health policy, Coyer furthers her analysis of the construction of the idealized medical man in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Lastly, Coyer’s conclusion turns to the nineteenth-century fin-de-siècle to trace the humanistic ethos earlier developed by Blackwood’s at a time when medicine was becoming increasingly ‘scientific’.

By examining the difference between the ‘literary trajectory’ (61) of a text and its significance in the context of medical culture, Coyer offers her readers an original lens through which to look at medical Gothic narratives, underlining the part which periodicals played in the shaping of a medical man of feeling as well as stressing the politicization of medical humanism. Her rich study brings together known and less known texts by ‘medico-literary’ figures, offering an insightful approach to the context in which popular medical writing developed. The book will undoubtedly appeal to both literature-and-science scholars and historians of medicine.

Laurence Talairach, University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Alexandre Koyré Center