Medical Body and Lived Experience: The Case of Harriet Martineau

By Ryall, Anka | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 2000 | Go to article overview

Medical Body and Lived Experience: The Case of Harriet Martineau


Ryall, Anka, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Focussing on the slippage between clinical diagnoses of gynaecological illnesses and ideologies of gender, this essay, by examining two incommensurable narratives of the bodily experiences of the nineteenth-century British writer Harriet Martineau, raises questions about issues of medical and epistemic authority.

In Western medicalized societies, the authority of scientific medicine to define reality is an issue that touches most people intimately. When ill, we rely on the authority of medicine not only because it promises a restoration of health but also because it validates our own sense that there is something physically wrong with us. Consequently, as Susan Wendell has argued, the authority of medicine "tends to de-legitimize our experiences of our bodies as sources of knowledge about them, because the authoritative, that is, the medical and scientific, descriptions of our bodies are third-person descriptions of physical conditions." Confronted with biomedical authority, "our own, phenomenological descriptions are at best treated as weak evidence for the truth of medical and scientific descriptions. They are almost never treated as even weak evidence against a medical or scientific description of our bodies" (119). The failure of scientific medicine to acknowledge the personal meanings of illness cannot simply be attributed to the characters of its practitioners; in the words of Paul Redding, it is an inevitable outcome of a development characterized by "the increasingly central role played by the paradigm of instrumental reason" (91). From an instrumental medical perspective, the diseased body is a physical object amenable to diagnosis and treatment; from a first-person perspective, in contrast, the disease is "lived experience, particularity" (Rich 215). Although the disease is a concern shared by doctor and patient, their respective horizons for understanding it are therefore not only different but also incommensurable (Hunter 124).

One nineteenth-century document that highlights and historicizes the incommensurability of medical accounts and individual lived experiences of illness is a lecture with the modest title "Remarks on the Case of Miss Martineau." The lecture, which was delivered to the Clinical Society of London on 27 April 1877 and afterward published in the British Medical Journal, is significant both because of its subject, one of the most prominent female intellectuals in Victorian Britain, and because of its author, the celebrated surgeon Thomas Spencer Wells (1818-97). In the history of British gynaecology, Wells is known as a successful pioneer and advocate of ovariotomy, that is, the surgical removal of cystic or cancerous ovaries. When he performed his first ovariotomy, in 1857, the procedure was still viewed as "little short of murder," and the operators were denounced as "hardly more than sow-gelders and butchers in frock-coats" (Moscucci 134, 138). Twenty years later, the mortality rate had been dramatically reduce d, and his work was hailed as one of the greatest achievements of modern surgery. Hence, it was at the height of his career that Wells--who according to his biographer was usually "tactful enough to keep clear of such activities"--got involved in publicly debating the medical history of his famous contemporary, the writer Harriet Martineau (1802-76), who had recently died (Shepherd 103).

As I attempt to show, Wells's lecture exemplifies the slippage between clinical diagnoses, especially of gynaecological illnesses, and cultural authority. By providing a biomedical explanation for the psychology of a woman whose life and opinions had violated most of the nineteenth-century norms of feminine behaviour, the lecture operates on behalf of conventional certainties about sexual dichotomies. But, because the subject of the lecture posthumously refuses to be contained by its terms, its authority is subtly undermined. Throughout her writing career, Martineau had repeatedly used her bodily experiences to contest medical authority, insisting that "the authority on the experience of somatic diseases, and even, potentially, on the nature of the disease itself, was the invalid" (Winter 221). …

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