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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Boyd Brogan, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Boyd Brogan is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College. He will be taking part in the event Does marriage make us healthier? on 17th October.


Question: How do you think an arts perspective can help in the study of the history of medicine?

Boyd Brogan: Sensitivity to the complexities of interpretation is important; people with a background in medical science can be naively overconfident in their abilities to identify modern disease categories in historical descriptions. On the other hand, cultural historians coming from a humanities viewpoint sometimes display a kind of dogmatic relativism that rejects any relationship between past and present.


Q: What is the main focus of your research?

BB: I am completing a project on premodern medical ideas that linked sexual abstinence to illness and am about to begin a new one on the relationship between hysteria and epilepsy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The projects are linked because both hysteria and epilepsy were historically believed to be caused by sexual abstinence. Up to and beyond the nineteenth century these were thought to be very similar illnesses.


Q: What drew you to this area?

BB: Foucault’s History of Sexuality. As an undergraduate, I was excited to imagine how something like sexuality could have a history. As a postgraduate, I was even more excited to discover there was so much of it still left to write!


Q: How was marriage viewed in the period you study in terms of how it affected health?

BB: Regular sexual intercourse and pregnancy were both seen as important for preserving health, and marriage was the only legitimate context for these. But the psychological dimension of marriage was equally important; it was viewed as the ultimate expression of friendship.


Q: How did this affect marriage conduct?

BB: Contrary to what you might expect, sexuality was seen as one of the most important components of marriage. In the medieval period, spouses who had separated could be ordered by church courts to spend at least one night together every week. Later on, Protestant guides to marriage conduct stress that neither spouse should ever sexually refuse their partner – regardless of whether you’re “in the mood”.


Q: How can this attitude to marriage be seen in some of the major literary works of the period?

BB: Milton’s Paradise Lost explores a key faultline of marriage in this period: the difficulty of reconciling the equality of friendship, which marriage was supposed to embody, with the subordination that continued to be expected from women. Contemporary marriage treatises wrestle with the same problem. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy has an important chapter on marriage as a cure for melancholy and other illnesses.


Q: Can you give some examples of how attitudes to gender and sexuality affected medical treatment?

BB: Doctors sometimes prescribed marriage as a cure for illnesses believed to be caused by lack of sexual activity. This happened with both male and female patients.


Q: What can historical research tell us about our attitudes to certain diseases today?

BB: There are important questions about the extent to which modern disease concepts are influenced by historical ones, particularly in the area of mental illness.