Romanticism, Radicalism, and Inoculation

Fuson Wang
UC Riverside

Romanticism, Radicalism, and Inoculation focuses on Romantic medicine and the radical literary history of inoculation. Although many historians of science tend to describe the period as a minor embarrassment in their narratives of technological progress, Edward Jenner’s 1798 work on the cowpox vaccine still remains one of our most significant—yet understudied—medical breakthroughs. Further, figures like William Cullen and John Brown were furiously working out the nature of disease through promising Linnaean taxonomies. Strictly disciplinary accounts miss the varied medical, political, and literary textures of Romanticism: Romantic medicine has been read as either a strictly literary meditation on the nature of life and death or as an embarrassing experimental culture emblematized by, for example, Thomas Beddoes’s failed pneumatic cures or Sir Humphry Davy’s nitrous oxide (laughing gas) research. This project challenges these disciplinary configurations and our overdetermined grand narratives of medical history— specifically Foucault’s influential account in Birth of the Clinic of the biopolitical institutionalization of an oppressive medical gaze. Contemporary controversies about vaccination—H1N1, for example—confirm that there exist certain medical practices that escape complete institutional legitimization. My project focuses on this radically subversive medical and literary history, an approach that recovers Jenner from critical obscurity and articulates the dependence of medical history on literature, and vice-versa.