Alanna Skuse

Department: English / Medical History
Discipline: English

Project Summary

This PhD grew out of an MA module considering eighteenth-century discourses of the body and gender. Reading the diaries of Sarah Cowper, a contemporary noblewoman, I was struck by entries detailing the death of female acquaintances from breast cancer, as well as her apprehensions of a similar fate for herself. Cowper's diary prompted me to begin searching for writing about cancer during the late sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, which proved richer and more prolific than I could have imagined. My thesis treats cancer as a disease with unique imaginative capital during the early modern period, which terrified both doctors and patients and revealed wider anxieties on issues such as the female body, the origins of disease and the role of the doctor. I argue that for such a project, the division of materials into literary and scientific is both unhelpful and anachronistic, and as such, I have taken an interdisciplinary approach which treats materials as diverse as hymns and surgery books as cultural artefacts. In this schema, the poetic and biblical resonances of the cancer can be seen to affect medical theory and practice, just as developments in surgery or the formation of a new diagnostic criteria for the disease could affect the word's use in an imaginative context. At present, the first chapters of the thesis deal with the conceptualisation of cancer, which included its status as a 'woman's disease' and its repeated characterisation as zoomorphic; the diagnosis of the disease, which shows it to have had a stable and prominent [lace in medical practice; and the perceived causes of cancer, which included the touchy subjects of breastfeeding, medical incompetence and domestic violence. The latter chapters look toward to 'cure' of the disease, which included pharmaceutical treatments ranging from the folkloric to the most modern mercurial treatments, as well as the first mastectomies, operations which threw into relief the vexed question of medical authority and the boundaries of medical intervention.

Supervisory Team

Professor Andrew McRae in the department of English. Doctor Sarah Toulalan in the department of Medical History.

Wider Research Interests

My work intersects with broader interests in early modern conceptualisations of the body, particularly in relation to medical advancement; the history of surgery; the semiotics of early modern phlebotomy, and questions of medical and scientific ethics in this period. I am also interested in seventeenth-century poetry, particularly that of Donne and Rochester, and in early modern drama, particularly revenge tragedy.