A local English professor looks at portrayals of medicine in Victorian lit — and how they inform thought today. | Book Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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A local English professor looks at portrayals of medicine in Victorian lit — and how they inform thought today.

"A lot of people want to claim there's a contrast between professionalism and quackery."

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As 21st-century consumers, we like to believe we can distinguish between legitimate medicine and quackery. But as Robert Morris University English professor Sylvia Pamboukian reminds us, the boundaries are never as clear as we imagine.

"A lot of people want to claim there's a contrast between professionalism and quackery," Pamboukian says. "But I'm more interested in the gray area between them."

Pamboukian's new book, Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle (Ohio University Press), examines manifestations of this gray area in Victorian-era classics. She focuses on how six different writers — Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and the anonymous author of Vernon Galbray — depict doctors, and how these depictions reflect prevailing opinions.

"They cover a range of ideas," she says of the novels. "I think you see Dickens working very hard to keep quackery and proper medicine distinct, versus someone like Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants to show that they're not distinct at all."

Before becoming an English professor, Pamboukian worked for roughly 10 years as a pharmacist — a job that afforded her firsthand experience in medical ambiguity.

"There are certainly a lot of products out there that many people would simply label a quack product," she says. "Then again, there's a lot of gray area."

Of particular interest to Pamboukian is the fluidity of medical terminology.

"I think that we often forget to pay attention to language," she says.

In Frankenstein, for instance, the word "anatomy" sometimes connotes a positive, progressive activity, sometimes a degenerate one. And in Collins' Armadale, "poison" connotes a variety of different chemicals, depending on the context.

Although many of the medical conventions in these books seem antiquated, Pamboukian believes a few stereotypes associated with quack doctors — foreignness and promotionalism, for example — still abide.

 "People are kind of wary about someone who is perhaps too much out there — who they see as perhaps too flamboyant, too fond of publicity," she says.

Similarly, the danger of falling prey to supposedly legitimate remedies remains very real. Pamboukian cites calcium supplements and hormone replacements as contemporary treatments that have since been called into question.  

"It's really astonishing to me how much of the Victorian period we still in fact are quite a bit like," she says.

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