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Medicine is War: The Martial Metaphor in Victorian Literature and Culture

  • Author(s): Servitje, Lorenzo
  • Advisor(s): Zieger, Susan
  • et al.
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Medicine is most often understood through the metaphor of war, as in “the fight against Ebola.” What I call the “martial metaphor” is so embedded in the discourses of medicine—and the disciplines that critique it—that we do not think twice about using this construction or about its bioethical implications, much less its origins. As the first cultural history of the martial metaphor, “Medicine Is War: The Martial Metaphor in Victorian Literature and Culture” shows how it gained cultural purchase throughout the nineteenth century to become the figure of speech so prevalent today. The thought of medicine as war didn’t begin as a metaphor; it emerged from the material connections between the military and medicine. These material connections were reflected on and redeployed as a metaphor by such authors as Mary Shelley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Kingsley, Bram Stoker, and Joseph Conrad during the advent of medical modernity to become codified in everyday usage.

Part I discusses how Shelley and Kingsley conflated the cholera epidemics of the first half of the nineteenth century with war in the context of pre-bacteriological theories of disease. Part II addresses the connections between empire, race, and germ theory in the second half of the nineteenth century as articulated through the writings of Stoker, Conan Doyle, and Conrad, where we see that the epistemological change to understanding disease as caused by living organisms challenged Britain’s salubrious racial identity.

“Medicine Is War” accounts for the historical baggage in the language commonly used to articulate the encounter with disease. Scholars such as Pamela Gilbert and Laura Otis who have referenced the metaphor in the context of other investigations of how nineteenth literature dealt with biological anxieties mapped onto political ones and vice versa have not addressed the cultural work of the metaphor itself. By contrast, “Medicine is War” traces how the metaphor’s history influenced its use in the Victorian era, revealing how literature occluded the military history of medical language and circulated the resulting metaphor in the public imaginary.

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This item is under embargo until June 16, 2022.