Elizabeth Green Musselman, Nervous Conditions

Elizabeth Green Musselman, Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006). 276 pp. £41.25 hb. ISBN 0791466795.

If masculinity and science epitomised energy and rationality during Britain’s Industrial Revolution, why and how did so many natural philosophers suffer nervous illnesses? How do these experiences of illness react with the development of science in the early industrial period? It is these fascinating questions that preoccupy this excellent book. In Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain, Elizabeth Green Musselman examines the ‘nervous man of science’ in an investigation of the conditions that shaped the cultural meanings of the nervous system within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century natural philosophy. Written with spirited persuasiveness, the book is helpfully illustrated with contemporary diagrams, sketches and charts. It contains scientific case studies, histories and literary analyses that bring sharp focus to the relationship between scientific development and the scientists’ nervous disorders. Through the study of colour blindness, hemiopsy and hallucination, Musselman considers the wider implications of dissenting religions on Anglican authority and provincialism on centralised political power.

In the first part of the book, Musselman presents an overview of the state of natural philosophy and its practitioners and the common precepts that united them, the most important being their attempts to make sense of nervous disorders. Her focus is on the natural philosophers who sought to understand the nervous system. She finds that ‘men of science [Watt, Herschel, Davy, Spencer etc.] experienced nervous abnormalities as significant events’ as they perceived themselves to be part of the cure for a fragmented society. A specific anxiety surrounded the nature of the nervous system concerned with vision and of visual imperfections. Natural philosophers relied on and, at the same time, were uneasy about their dependence on visual competence. As the precision of scientific instruments improved, so the perceptual senses had to work in harmony with mechanics through the concepts of will and attention.

Musselman prioritises the importance of will and attention in relation to empiricist accounts of the mind and body. She theorises that because of the importance of the will to the practice of science, doubts of its existence led to nervous breakdowns, as in the case of John Stuart Mill. She moves the topic from ‘mental provincialism’ towards subjectivity and provincialism, considering different life experiences and individual psychologies. The transformation of industrial-led provincial towns into thriving hubs of commerce saw the growth of new literary and philosophical societies which assumed an authority at variance with the London scientific elite. She reflects on the resultant hierarchical order of social and scientific organisation.

The second and most weighty part of the book gives case studies addressing specific nervous disorders relating to the visual part of the nervous system and to the perceptive faculties of the mind. Chapter three introduces a consideration of colour blindness and its relation to provincialism. Musselman focuses specifically on John Dalton, the pupil of the blind scientist John Gough. Dalton, a Northern Quaker who became known as the ‘father of modern chemistry’, was colour blind. Having surmounted the limitations of physical, provincial and religious boundaries, Dalton symbolised the transcendence of science’s metropolitan centrality. It was Dalton’s announcement of his colour blindness that first drew attention and national scientific debate to the condition and, from there, to the generalising of idiosyncratic experience.

Following a comprehensive overview of the link between colour perception and scientific work, Musselman explores Dalton’s career in terms of his provincial and religious environment. In her appraisal of the significance of Quakerism in the understanding of colour blindness, she proposes that both symbolised provincialism as the former was distanced from conventional perceptions of Anglican religion and the latter, from visual truth. This section leads to a rigorous analysis of the progress of research into colour vision, including the standardisation of more general protocols and training procedures, and concludes that, on the one hand, differences such as religion or abnormal vision were ‘irreducible to one common nature’ but, on the other, that colour blindness helped transform idiosyncratic behaviour into universal knowledge.

The fourth chapter deals with hemiopsy, a migraine-like nervous disorder common to many of the industrial era natural philosophers and characterised by the manifestation of a blind spot in one or both eyes, surrounded by jagged, coloured lines and followed by a headache. Musselman explains that the condition encouraged the scientific hemionopes to connect their bodies and work with industrialisation by attempting to manage the relationship between the mind and body. Offering an analogy of the body as a steam engine and the mind as the regulatory governor, she draws on early writings on hemiopsy and gives case studies of prominent sufferers - William Hyde Wollaston, David Brewster, George Airy and John Herschell - and  includes the diagrams they produced in illustration of their attacks. The fascination with the mind and body relationship continues with the idea of the ‘engine’ affecting power and change through the ‘governor’s’ direction. Man and nature’s dynamism, she concludes, simultaneously fashioned a combination of knowledge, power and health.

The final chapter returns to notions of provincialism and non-Anglican religion, but now in terms of scientific research on hallucinations and ghosts, and the literature that encompassed this obsession. The prevalent scientific view was that superstitions and visions associated with the ‘enthusiasm’ of dissenting religions could be controlled by using reason to explain the irrational. Musselman describes the contemporary fixation with frequently occurring phenomena, such as spirits, apparitions and hallucinations, not least among the scientific community. She identifies these phenomena with the rapid political and religious changes which jeopardised Anglican authority in the same way that provincial power threatened centralised state government. Natural philosophers united with the Church in agreement that subjective experiences, such as hallucinations, could only have either natural or divine causes.

Turning to the literature on hallucinations, specifically that of Walter Scott and David Brewster, Musselman explores hallucination as a subject that is relevant to the control of religious factionalism. Scott trod a line between discrediting the supernatural and encouraging the belief in ‘the abstract possibility of apparitions’, while Brewster’s expertise in optics imbued his writings with logical explanations of supernatural phenomena. Both writers dismissed the idea of divine communication while not entirely denying materialistic explanations. The natural philosophers who interpreted case studies, saw mental and physical exhaustion or emotional turmoil as contributory factors. In the late nineteenth century, Francis Galton’s study of ‘Mental Imagery’ points out the movement from natural philosophy’s stabilising efforts, towards the new science of psychology.

Musselman has produced a rigorous work of complex but accessible science, literature, critical biography and cultural history. With its multi-disciplinary style, her book is approachable for the professional academic, the student or the general interest reader, and, importantly, makes a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the history of science.

Teresa Barnard, University of Derby

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