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Nervous Conditions

Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain

Elizabeth Green Musselman

Publication Year: 2006

Nervous Conditions explores the role of the body in the development of modern science, challenging the myth that modern science is built on a bedrock of objectivity and confident empiricism. In this fascinating look into the private world of British natural philosophers—including John Dalton, Lord Kelvin, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and many others—Elizabeth Green Musselman shows how the internal workings of their bodies played an important part in the sciences’ movement to the center of modern life, and how a scientific community and a nation struggled their way into existence. Many of these natural philosophers endured serious nervous difficulties, particularly vision problems. They turned these weaknesses into strengths, however, by claiming that their well-disciplined mental skills enabled them to transcend their bodily frailties. Their adeptness at transcendence, they asserted, explained why men of science belonged at the heart of modern life, and qualified them to address such problems as unifying the British provinces into one nation, managing the industrial workplace, and accommodating religious plurality.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Science, Technology, and Society (discontinued)


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Anyone who has transformed a doctoral dissertation into a book has incurred a long thank-you list. It is only appropriate to thank first those who served as midwives to the birthing process. For generously sharing their time, expertise, and encouragement with me, I thank my doctoral committee at Indiana University: Richard Sorrenson, Jim Capshew, Jeanne Peterson, and Nico Bertoloni-Meli. ...

PART I Embodied Epistemology

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ONE The Nervous Man of Science

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pp. 3-29

ATOP THE MANLY SHOULDERS of Britain’s first industrial age sat some of history’s coolest heads of scientific genius: James Watt, Humphry Davy, and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), just to name a few.While new generations of scientifically and industrially minded men tethered Britain’s profits, governance, and other public domains, women disappeared into factories, dark ...

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TWO The Social Hierarchy of Subjectivity

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pp. 30-51

NERVOUS DISORDERS DISRUPTED the day-to-day life of natural philosophy and threatened the tenuous claim that natural philosophy had to the Enlightenment crown of reason. Generalizing from one’s own experience of nature meant transforming that experience into something that was not utterly idiosyncratic, that could be understood by others, that could ...

PART II The Nervous Conditions

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THREE Provincialism and Color Blindness

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pp. 55-100

JOHN GOUGH’S CAMEO APPEARANCE in Wordsworth’s “The Excursion” (above)1 marked his status as a minor legend in the Georgian period. A childhood bout with smallpox left Gough blind. Undeterred, he embarked on a career as a mathematics tutor and botanist. He could distinguish plants according to their tastes and smells, and even said he could taste color. While Wordsworth ...

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FOUR Mental Governance and Hemiopsy

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pp. 101-145

ANYONE WHO HAS SUFFERED A MIGRAINE has probably watched spots, lines, or other geometric shapes radiate through their field of vision. Today, physicians call these visual effects scotomas. In Britain’s early industrial period a number of prominent natural philosophers experienced the same phenomena, which they deemed the result of a nervous disorder called hemiopsy. ...

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FIVE Rational Faith and Hallucination

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pp. 146-188

WHILE SERVING AS LIBRARIAN to the Earl of Shelburne in the 1770s, the radical chemist Joseph Priestley was called to the chambers of the earl’s son. The youth had spent a sleepless night due to a distressing dream in which a hearse carried him to his family’s burial place.Dr. Priestley assured him that the dream was simply the product of a fever. The medical attendant assigned to ...

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SIX Conclusion

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pp. 189-197

I BEGAN THIS BOOK with an image of industrial Britain as a muscular world. By now we know that this was also a nervous world, and not just for its women. For men—even well-educated, well-fed men like our natural philosophers—facts and bodies had an orneriness about them that continually defied easy control. Creating a national science thus meant constant diligence.Natural philosophers’ labors to tame the orneriness of scientific ...


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pp. 199-228


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pp. 229-266


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pp. 267-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780791482063
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791466797
Print-ISBN-10: 0791466795

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 1 b/w photograph, 1 table, 15 figures
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: SUNY series in Science, Technology, and Society (discontinued)
Series Editor Byline: Sal Restivo See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 74814143
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Nervous Conditions

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Scientists -- Mental health -- Great Britain -- History -- 19th century.
  • Science -- Philosophy -- History -- 19th century.
  • Nervous system -- Philosophy -- History -- 19th century.
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