Medical researchers writing medical history

Last week (or the week before?), one of the contributors at C18-L drew my attention to a new piece of medical history research in which I have a certain personal interest: Did all those famous people really have epilepsy?

I’m an epileptic. I haven’t had a fit for a very long time, but I continue to take the medication to make sure that state of affairs continues. I was apparently relatively unusual in that it began well after childhood, and I only ever had a handful of fits, in the space of a few months, before we got the medication right (thankfully). I can’t help suspecting that, unless future historians have my medical records, they might well find it quite hard to determine whether I ‘really’ had epilepsy either. (But it certainly caused more than enough disruption to my life at the time.)

Diagnosing illnesses of people long dead is frequently difficult and controversial (George III: was it really porphyria? The Black Death: was it really bubonic plague? Nearly forgot: What killed Napoleon?). The external symptoms of epilepsy are pretty varied and often capable of confusion with other conditions; it’s hard to diagnose for certain without scanning technology (as the article points out). Quite rightly, overly confident diagnoses of historical afflictions founded on inadequate evidence can be criticised. And I still don’t think that it’s an acceptable methodology to use references to syphilis in a certain well-known writer’s work to suggest that he suffered from that disease, either.

But it works the other way round too: surely, what this researcher should be saying – particularly of the pre-modern personalities he studied, and more especially since this study seems to have been based purely on secondary sources – is that he doesn’t have the evidence to prove that those people were epileptics, and that we should be cautious in making that diagnosis, rather than that they were all, definitively, not-epileptics. Clearly, researchers with medical expertise have valuable knowledge to bring to the history of medicine. But I do often find myself wishing that they’d take a few lessons on the basics of historical research from us historians.

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One Response to Medical researchers writing medical history

  1. rob says:

    Fascinating stuff. I spent a long time with Flaubert last year, and remember being intrigued by the debate over whether he was epileptic. Geoffrey Wall talks about the relative merits a bit in his readable but bizarrely-footnoted biography, but unfortunately I don’t have it handy.

    Like you say, it’s really dodgy to go in either direction, because “epileptic” certainly meant something different in mid-C19th France than it does today, and for instance encompassed a whole range of afflictions which have been subtly distinguished since. We know something was medically “up” with Flaubert, and that it was discussed by him and others around him, but any other assumptions should always be treated with the same rigourous scrutiny as psychoanalysis, genius-cults, or any other analysis which goes beyond the records to try and construct an authorial subject. If we were able to show that Flaubert was epileptic, I don’t know what it would help us do except give up all our subtle analyses and start “blaming” (or, to use a nicer word, “attributing”) things on his epilepsy.

    Although, obviously, trying to figure out “why” Flaubert didn’t like the bourgeois is a rather different business from those saucy scoundrels who want to know what kings died of!

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