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Nervous Management of Modern Science
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Anyone who spends much time in the 18th or 19th centuries, reading novels, say, or doing serious historical research, invariably encounters among the educated classes the rampant incidence of chronic illness, fatigue, debility, nervous breakdowns, and all of their medical and cultural sequelae. Natural philosophers and medical men suffered their own varieties of nervous ailments, many of which counted among the occupational diseases to which scholars had always been prone—mental exhaustion, migraines, hallucinations, and so on. It might be easy to assume that such concerns, however serious to the sufferers, remained simply personal or marginal to their achievements, obstacles to be overcome, like the well-known illnesses that delayed Darwin's progress in formulating his grand theory. But in Nervous Conditions: Science and the Body Politic in Early Industrial Britain, Elizabeth Green Musselman powerfully demonstrates that many scientific men made these very personal and often agonizing experiences a central concern of their scientific research, articulating their problems in light of advances in the understanding of the nervous system. Personal "nervous conditions" provided fundamental data for new models of the nervous system and explanations of a range of physiological and medical questions. Beyond their productivity for scientific issues, the natural philosophers' problems of nerves and bodily constitution engendered reflections that came to serve as models of the ideal scientific and social organization they hoped to establish in Britain and internationally.

Why did so many men of science endure nervous illnesses? In the 18th and 19th centuries, natural philosophy, like the voyages and explorations with which it was often joined, epitomized masculine vigor and rationality. Natural philosophical research required stamina and a titanic will, whether for the long and patient hours making observations through telescopes or microscopes, or the labors of calculations, or the late nights reading and writing by candlelight. But these activities bore inherent risks of scientific error brought on by eye work or brain work taken to the point of impairment. Nervous physiology—and especially vision—was thus a key element in both the daily work and the methodology of natural philosophy. Who better, then, to investigate these problems than natural philosophers, whose familiarity with precision instrumentation, the science of imponderable forces, optics, and epistemology outstripped all rivals, including the medical doctors who usually depended on the imperfect, exaggerated accounts of patients untrained to observe closely or record faithfully? In this spirit many natural philosophers, like Isaac Newton or Johann Wilhelm Ritter, performed experiments on their own bodies, poking their eyes with bodkins or discharging galvanic currents into sensitive organs. Others, like Jan Purkyneˇ, Gustav Theodor Fechner, or Hermann Helmholtz, experimented with afterimages until they temporarily lost their eyesight or suffered migraines. Ironically, it was the natural philosopher's bodily vulnerability that afforded him the heroic opportunity to achieve mastery, to convert weakness into strength, and to prevail over natural phenomena.

As these examples make clear, the epidemic of nervous conditions afflicted the entire Republic of Letters, not just Britain. Yet, Green Musselman contends, the British response to these problems remained unique in crucial respects and left a distinct legacy for modern science. During most of this period, Britain's experience with industrialization was much more thorough than in other countries, which posed a range of new problems but also offered new cultural resources for coping with them. Because of their close links to industry and other national institutions, as well as to each other, British natural philosophers were closely tied to national social and political problems and sought to employ the methods and results of their science wherever possible to the threats posed by political radicalism, the growth of nonconformist religion, the division of labor, and other forces of disintegration. By the 1830s, despite all of their differences on matters of theory, method, and particular results, a loose consensus emerged among British natural philosophers around key matters such as mathematics and instruments as guarantors of precision, divine lawfulness in the universe, experimental techniques, mind-body dualism as a concept underlying inductivism, the structure and dynamics of matter, and the preference for managerial over rationalist solutions. All of these assumptions prominently shaped— and were shaped by—the British natural philosophers' attempts to make sense of nervous disorders.


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