Cholera, fungus, and goths? In today’s installment of Bwog Science, staff writer Riya Mirchandaney writes about last night’s lecture, “The Medical Imagination in the Early United States,” part of the Explorations in the Medical Humanities Series hosted by the Heyman Center for the Humanities.
“Science does not know its debt to imagination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1872
What I thought would be a broad and heartwarming discussion on the importance of the imagination in medicine ended up being a long and stressfully intimate—but fascinating—talk about the enigmatic nature of fungi. Yes, you read that right—to quote Cosmo Kramer, fungi.
Sari Altschuler, assistant professor of English at Northeastern and scholar of American literature and culture before 1865, used this talk (sponsored by the Heyman Center for the Humanities) to preview her upcoming book, The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States, a multidisciplinary work tracing the intersections of medical history and literary history.
She began by talking about cholera. Believed to be endemic to India, cholera eventually made its way to North America in the 1820s. Cholera didn’t seem contagious, yet spread rapidly, confounding all public health officials. Medical cartography, which mapped the instances and spread of the choleric miasma, proved ineffective for understanding the disease’s nature. Mysterious and deadly, cholera presented the perfect conundrum for the medically imaginative.
Introducing: gothic medicine. The gothiest of goths, Edgar Allan Poe, along with his physician-poet friend John Kearsley Mitchell, both of whom were thoroughly affected by the cholera outbreak (Mitchell himself nearly died from it), took to writing to interpret and convey the situation.
Poe wrote “The Fall of the House of Usher,” an eerie, atmospheric short story that emphasizes the ability of disease to radically reclaim familiar spaces. Poe sets the scene with clouds hanging “oppressively low,” “decayed trees,” and “a sickening of the heart.” The narrator is visiting the house of a friend, Roderick Usher, when Roderick reveals that he and his sister Madeline are both ill, and that he believes the house itself is ill and, therefore, the cause of their sickness:
“The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn.”
Poe is fascinated by fungi, and posits fungi as the origin of fever. This is not a result of anything empirical exactly, but the belief at the time was that fungal cells permeated the borders between plant and animal cells—certainly a cause for gothy suspicion. In addition, fungi tend to multiply at night, which makes them seem super sketch.
John Kearsley Mitchell, similarly fascinated by our freaky fungi, presented a lecture to medical students entitled “On the cryptogamous origin of malarious and epidemic fevers.” (“Crypto” meaning hidden or secret, and “gamous” as relating to reproduction.) Essentially, Mitchell proposed a fungal theory: cholera, instead of being miasmic (i.e. transmitted by air), was transmitted by fungi, explaining how the disease was non-contagious but still managed to move through space (fungi can move! Sweet dreams!). Mitchell utilized elements of the Gothic to theorize cholera as barely visible fungal growths, beings whose existence—or power—originated from darkness.
Well, spoiler alert, cholera has little to do with our fungal friends (sad face), and more to do with dirty water. In the 1850s, English physicist John Snow used medical cartography to determine the waterborne nature of cholera. Yes, technically, Poe and Mitchell were wrong. But the point is that the imaginative theories of Mitchell and Poe were kind of revolutionary and important in the way they were formed and technically more correct than most of the theorizing at the time. So take that.
Thus ended the fungal shpiel, and thus began a brief discussion of the nature of medical education. Of course Altschuler argued for the importance of the humanities in medical education, but it’s not so simple. She cited an article about Harvard Medical School that discussed improved rates of empathy among students who engaged with works of literature and art. The emphasis on empathy, she argued, can erode the epistemological integrity of the humanities. In addition, arguing that medical students should simply “engage” with the arts evacuates authority from the arts—yes, read the book, and sure, have an emotional response to the book, but also think creatively and analytically about the book! The qualifications of the humanities in a medical and scientific setting stretch beyond mere empathy.
It was a strange evening that felt somewhat all over the place, but I did leave with a lot to think about. When I left the Heyman Center, it was dark outside, and I swear I could hear the fungi multiplying.
rainy cottage via https://at-home-other.ambient-mixer.com/inside-a-rainy-cottage