Feeling Dis/ease – New Perspectives on Contemporary History

Concluding Conference of the Minerva Research Focus

29 - 31 January 2020
Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

Organiser: PD Dr. Bettina Hitzer

The Minerva Research Focus on “Emotions and Illness: Histories of an Intricate Relation” conducted in-depth studies on the emotional history of illness. It had two main topics: the history of cancer and the history of psychosomatics. Cancer has historically been one of the most feared diseases, one that exceeds human imagination and the limits of medical science, while psychosomatics has long debated the power, therapeutic significance, curability, and meaning of emotions.

Public Keynote

Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck, University of London)
Forensic Sense: Sexual Violence, Medical Professionals, and the Senses

Wednesday, 29 January 2020, 6 pm
Large Conference Room
(no registration required)
Physicians, police doctors and forensic medical examiners, GPs, gynaecologists, surgeons, nurses, midwives, psychiatrists, and therapists and other medical professionals play central roles in the examination, treatment, and counselling of victims of sexual violence. They are influential social and legal agents in understanding, interpreting, and adjudication of sexual attacks. This paper explores the ways they use the senses of sight, touch, sound, and smell to arrive at a forensic understanding of the bodies and minds of rape victims and survivors from the late nineteenth century to the present. Focussing mainly on Britain and America, I explore the historically and geographically variable ways medical professionals learn the practices, techniques, and technologies relevant to medico-legal labour.   Joanna Bourke is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. She is the prize-winning author of thirteen books. In 2014, she was the author of The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (OUP) and Wounding the World: How Military Violence and War-Play are Invading our Lives (Virago). An Intimate History of Killingwon the Wolfson Prize and the Fraenkel Prize. Her books have been translated into Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Catalan, Italian, Portuguese, Czech, Turkish, and Greek. She is the Principal Investigator on a five year Wellcome Trust-funded project entitled SHaME, or Sexual Harms and Medical Encounters (shame.bbk.ac.uk).

The concluding conference will take stock of the research focus and offer some ideas for future work in the history of emotions and related fields. It will tackle some methodological issues encountered over the run of the Minerva project, including the question as to how scholars studying the history of illness can gain insights into the experience and significance of emotions, touch, sounds, and smells. For instance, what did x-rays smell like in the 1920s? What kinds of sounds did radiation machines and ventilation systems make? What did lead vests and other protective coverings feel like on the skin? And how did these sensory experiences coagulate into an emotional experience? Though one might consider the study of these phenomena to be a matter for the history of the senses, it is also possible to see them as integral aspects of a history of the emotions that probes the effects that sensory experiences have on how people feel about illness. What theoretical assumptions inform this view, and what methods can historians draw on to address the relation between the senses and emotions?

Contributions will grapple with how these and similar questions can be made fruitful for empirical research on the emotional history of illness and health and for the development of methods adequate to this task. In doing so, they will discuss approaches from other branches of historiography and related disciplines like the sociology of medicine, cultural studies, literary studies, and security studies.

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