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Bodies Politic Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain 1650-1900 by Roy Porter

Bodies Politic Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain 1650-1900


Bodies Politic Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain 1650-1900 by Roy Porter

In a historical tour de force, Roy Porter takes a critical look at representations of the body in death, disease and health, and at images of the healing arts in Britain from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century. Porter's key assumptions are that the human body is the chief signifier and communicator of all manner of meanings religious, moral, political and medical and that pre-scientific medicine was an art which depended heavily on ritual, rhetoric and theatre. Porter argues that great symbolic weight was attached to contrasting conceptions of the healthy and diseased body, and that such ideas were mapped onto antithetical notions of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. With these images in mind, he explores aspects of being ill alongside the practice of medicine, paying special attention to self-presentations by physicians, surgeons and quacks, and to changes in practitioners' public identities over time. Porter also examines the wider symbolic meanings of disease and doctoring and the 'body politic'. Porter's book is packed with outrageous and amusing anecdotes portraying diseased bodies and medical practitioners alike.


A wonderful book. Porter says in his introduction that he turned his eye from text to illustration and saw a new story to tell. There are 153 illustrations in this book, 32 in colour, and every one is an exultation in the fleshly horrors of the era. -- Tim Radford The Guardian Porter is one of the world's best historical writers: his prose is pithy, witty, vivid, engaging and perfectly paced. He has a keen eye for evidence and can wrest conclusions with analytical rigour and imaginative subtlety. He masters fact and theory with equal ease and wields both lightly and powerfully ... Roy Porter's book illuminates the past. Present trends make it also seem ominously prophetic. -- Felipe Fernandez-Armesto The Independent This handsome book offers further insights into Roy Porter's extensive medical history of the long eighteenth century ... Lavish pictorial histories of medicine have become common lately, some of them offering little beyond their illustrations. Porter's account is solid and engaging, supported rather than dominated by the pictures ... In offering his own analysis, Roy Porter also offers scope for variant interpretations. -- Anne Crowther Times Literary Supplement A riveting account. The great strength of this book lies in its use of visual material. Porter has made a fine attempt at helping us understand the past through caricature, illustrations and sketches as well as his own words. It is these images, by the likes of Cruikshank and Rowlandson, which make this such an excoriating account. -- Catherine Pepinster The Independent on Sunday The book is handsomely printed, and the reproductions are of good quality - an essential requirement in a book of this kind. Porter's knowledge of the material is unrivaled, and when he writes in unadorned fashion of the careers of doctors, writers and artists, he could hardly be bettered. [Porter's] book may be read with great pleasure and profit. -- Anthony Daniels Sunday Telegraph A magical history tour of illness and public attitudes to disease and doctors over the past 250 years. Dense with thought-provoking reflections and makes you realize how very much we remain at the mercy of all too fallible doctors. -- Val Hennessy Daily Mail

About the Author

Until his death in 2002, Roy Porter was Professor in the Social History of Medicine at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. He was the author of many books including, most recently, Religion, Health and Suffering (1999), Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000) and co-author with G. S. Rousseau of Gout: The Patrician Malady (1998).

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Book Info

Publication date

1st April 2003


Roy Porter

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Reaktion Books


328 pages


History of medicine



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