Friday, June 01, 2012

Five notable books on the history of medicine and addiction

Louise Foxcroft is the author of The Making of Addiction and Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A History of the Modern Menopause, for which she won the Longman Pearson/History Today Book of the Year Award. Her latest book is Calories and Corsets: A History of Dieting Over 2000 Years.

With Daisy Banks of The Browser, she discussed five top books on the history of medicine and addiction, including:
Tormented Hope
by Brian Dillon

Your next book, Brian Dillon’s Tormented Hope, takes a look at the lives of nine hypochondriacs.

This is a great book. I think Brian Dillon is also very good at relating things to the personal. He looks with enormous insight at the idea of hypochondria – also an ancient notion. Before Freud, it was thought to have to do with the digestive system. After Freud, it became more of a psychological condition and an illness in itself. Hypochondria has become a bit of a pejorative term. We tend to think it is the most ridiculous notion to be one of the “worried well” who are always checking themselves.

Dillon examines nine lives of well-known figures who were also hypochondriacs. He writes about James Boswell, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol. Even though they were thinkers and cultural icons, they were almost disabled by their hypochondria, powerlessness and fear.

Are there any details of their lives that you found particularly interesting?

I find the extremes to which their illness went very interesting. There was also a sense of alienation and isolation that came from being obsessed by what these people thought of as their bodies’ betrayal of them. [The German judge] Daniel Paul Schreber, one of the case studies in the book, was commented on by Freud. He spent a lot of time confined in an asylum thinking that he was changing into a woman, that God would impregnate him and he would begin a master race, which is wild enough in itself. Later, he came to believe that his body was rotting while his mind was still alive. That is a really extreme case of hypochondria, where you become completely obsessed with yourself and the breakdown of the physical self. That goes back to Porter’s book, and the idea of the mind/body duality and how it splits, which I find utterly fascinating.
Read about another book Foxcroft tagged at The Browser.

Also see Stephanie J. Snow's five best list of books on the history of medicine.

--Marshal Zeringue