Coleridge and the Doctors, 1795-1806

Coleridge and the Doctors, 1795-1806

Coleridge and the Doctors, 1795-1806

Coleridge and the Doctors, 1795-1806


What did Coleridge know about medicine and how did it influence the development of his critical thought? Neil Vickers sets out to answer this question in this radical reinterpretation of Coleridge's career between 1795 and 1806. Coleridge and the Doctors changes the way we look at Coleridge's intellectual development and reveals the richness of his involvement in the eighteenth-century tradition of 'philosophical medicine' and its determining influence on his critical and philosophic stance. The book also contains a revisionary analysis of Coleridge's dealings with opiates and offers a comprehensive account of British early Romantic medicine.


It is both easy and dangerous to allow the assumptions of twenty-first century medicine to colour our perceptions of Coleridge’s medical pursuits. Perhaps the feature which most distinguishes his age from ours is that in his era it was still possible to be a cultivated non-professional student of medicine. Coleridge had a good general understanding of the great medical systems of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (which of us could say that about, say, gene therapies, or immunology?). He participated with interest in experiments in the emerging but doomed field of pneumatic medicine. In An Essay on Scrofula (1816), he wrote a partial history of a major disease, tuberculosis of the lymph glands. And he also wrote a quasi-medical treatise (though it is primarily a contribution to the study of scientific epistemology), Hints towards the Formation of a More Comprehensive Theory of Life (1816). The eighteenth century is sometimes remembered as a golden age of medical amateurism. But as even this truncated list of Coleridge’s medical endeavours shows, amateurism did not always take the form of superficial, dabbling work.

Superb scholarly work has appeared on the illness culture of Georgian England. But it is hard to use much of it to discover things about Coleridge’s evolution as a thinker. It is not that Coleridge set himself apart from the illness culture of his own times: he did not. Like many of his frailer contemporaries, he tried ‘horse-exercise’, practised bathing, undertook long and gruelling walks, and, most famously of all, took opium. Where he differed from his peers was in the philosophic seriousness which he brought to bear on these nostrums and on the theories underpinning them. In his own terms, that was a difference of degree, not kind. But it is nonetheless sufficiently great to make it difficult to capture either the nature or the extent of his involvement by reference to the conventions of, say, Georgian fiction.

For Coleridge, medicine was intimately connected with metaphysical questions. Questions such as: Is there a common basis inherent in all living things by means of which we may know that we are all ‘One

SWF, i, 454–78.

SWF, i, 481–556.

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