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Wellcome Trust’s £570,000 grant to study emotions of 19th century surgeons and patients

The sympathy, pity, pain and fear 19th century surgeons and their patients experienced in the days before anaesthetic was used will be explored by academics at the University, thanks to a £570,000 research grant.

Posted: 19 August 2015

image for news story Wellcome Trust’s £570,000 grant to study emotions of 19th century surgeons and patients
Dr Michael Brown, who will lead the extensive study into surgeons' and patients' emotional state.

Dr Michael Brown from the Department of Humanities will lead the four year study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which will cover civil and military hospitals.

Medical humanities research is already well established at the University, this project is intended to contribute significantly towards its growing reputation for excellence in the subject.

The extensive project will challenge the conventional view of surgeons, including those in the Napoleonic Wars and First World War, who were viewed as dispassionate about their patients – now known as clinical detachment.

Dr Brown said: “We will attempt to transform understanding of historical surgery by exploring the emotional landscape of civil and military operating theatres in the 19th century. We’re taking a major step forward in our understanding of people in the medical profession, and how they engaged with their patients.

“Historians have generally emphasised the emotional detachment of surgeons at that time, but I believe their mindset was more complex. There was no real pain medication, and as intelligent and ‘sensible’ gentlemen, surgeons did sympathise with their patients, feeling pity for them and anxiety on their behalf. We will bring clarity to the extent of these feelings and examine how they subsequently shaped surgeons’ professional identities and their representation in popular culture. Our modern image of the detached professional surgeon might not always have been the case."

The results of the research will lead to conferences and workshops, including events at the Royal College of Surgeons, which will encourage current surgeons to talk about emotion in their own working lives.

Study History and Classical Civilisation in the Department of Humanities

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