ERC 10th Anniversary Week: Diseases of Modern Life

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Diseases of Modern Life


It is frequently claimed that we live in an era of unprecedented stress, as we struggle with a bombardment of information, and  long-hours culture.  In this project, researchers place our current concerns in the context of the nineteenth-century, when the Victorians encountered what they termed the ‘Diseases of Modern Life.’   These ‘diseases’ linked to the speed and pressures of life created by the growth of railway networks, and the construction of telegraph systems which made speedy global communication possible.   They were also associated with the growth of forms of environmental pollution in the cities, which were seen to affect both mental and bodily health.   The research considers a range of conditions with intriguing parallels to contemporary times, from drug-taking bankers suffering from diseases of speculation, through to clerks in offices who, like today’s computer users, developed various forms of muscular disorders.   We also look at the development of health resorts, and the impressive array of treatments devised for clients suffering from overwork and stress.   Bringing together areas of research that are often seen as quite distinct, the project explores nineteenth-century understandings of the interaction between mental and bodily health, and social and physical environment.  The interdisciplinary team of researchers is exploring these issues through a variety of sources within popular culture, science, medicine and literary texts, and in a variety of areas.   One strand, for example, is focused on digestive health, and another on sound:

Gastrointestinal Health in the 19th Century

Gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century was a central concern for doctors and patients alike. Periodical essays and medical texts, but also novels and poems in this period identified digestive disorder as a phenomenon associated with aspects of modern life, such as urban living, food adulteration, stress, and overwork. This research considers how understandings of gastrointestinal health changed throughout the century, how they dovetailed with narratives of modernity, and how they impacted conceptions of gender and social identity. The research is informed by contemporary developments in microbiome studies, and is currently particularly interested in the links being drawn—then and now—between digestive health and emotional wellbeing.

Reactions to Sound and Music

This research focuses on new understandings of the body’s physiological and psychological responses to sound and music in the period. It is structured around a series of auditory thresholds, which were each brought to scientific and medical attention in the nineteenth century and which became the subject of both scientific investigation and literary response and experimentation. These include the inner soundscape of the human body which was made audible through new medical technologies such as the stethoscope, the real/imagined soundscape of the supernatural and the occult which was often understood to be made manifest through the workings of scientific and musical instruments, the sounds which were discovered to be audible to animal/non-human but not human beings, and the human and animal/non-human ability to produce, respond to and appreciate music.



The ERC has been a wonderful body to work with: the freedom to devise your own project, and to bring together an interdisciplinary team to work together for five years, has meant that we have been able to consider the research from a wide variety of angles, and to develop new perspectives that go well beyond the original conception.   We have all learnt from each other, swapping and developing expertise.  The whole experience has been exciting and exhilarating, and the research itself endlessly fascinating.   We are deeply grateful to the ERC for making it all possible.