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“Now I’ve a theory that people only do things like that when they are below par for some reason or other,” the doctor said, taking the pipe from his mouth and looking critically at it. “I mean when they are in love, or after they have lost a relation. If a man is in a normal condition, he thinks of nothing but himself; the troubles of others slip from his memory like water off a duck’s back. But if he is below par for some reason or other, the disease of caring about the sorrows of the world creeps in upon him. That was my case, at any rate. […] That is why I am here to-night, instead of in the West End, where I could make a decent living.”

– John Law [Margaret Harkness], In Darkest London (1891)

A one-day symposium exploring medical professionals’ engagement with activism from the nineteenth century to the present.

Date: Friday 26 October 2018

Venue: Keynes Library, School of Arts, Birkbeck, University of London (43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD)

Keynote speaker: Dr Anne Hanley (Birkbeck)

Roundtable participants: Dr Jenny Crane (Warwick), Dr Julian M. Simpson (independent), and Dr Alex Mold (LSHTM)

In In Darkest London (1891), Margaret Harkness’s popular novel about activism to alleviate poverty conditions in late nineteenth-century London, a doctor practising in a slum neighbourhood speaks of the ‘disease of caring’ that prompts him to give medical care to people in need of much wider social change. Harkness herself had trained as a nurse and pharmacist and her medical knowledge continued to inform her activist work throughout her working life. Both her own career and the fictional doctor in her novel reflect how, as medical care became increasingly professionalised over the course of the nineteenth century, discourses of medicine, social influence, and activism also grew interlinked. From the radical revisions of care provision developed by nurses such as Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale during and after the Crimean War, to the widening of access to safe and effective birth control by activists from Annie Besant to Marie Stopes, to the founding of the NHS, to protests of junior doctors in the present day, the giving of medical care has often been a radical act, and givers of medical care have often allied themselves with a wide range of activist causes. This one-day symposium will aim to create a dialogue between examples and intentions of medical activists historically and in the present day.

Organised by Flore Janssen (Birkbeck).

Supported by:

  • Birkbeck/Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund
  • Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies