Morbid Sensations: Intimacy, Coercion, and Epidemic Disease in Philadelphia, 1793-1854

Timothy Kent Holliday, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

This project refigures the histories of yellow fever, cholera, and typhus through the rubric of intimacy, defined as a value-neutral condition of physical and sensory proximity that can acquire a positive or negative valence based on context. It considers how disease-specific symptoms, epidemiological theories, and treatments of disease have material and intimate impacts on the cultures and societies that survive. Intimate care practices catalyzed knowledge production, feeding into nosological theories of disease, but they also changed the ways that people understood the body, and themselves as patients and physicians. Philadelphia’s historic epidemics catalyzed the development of a clinical brand of intimate information gathering that blurred the lines between what historians have traditionally viewed as distinctly medical and distinctly carceral institutions. Twenty-first-century compliance with doctors’ orders was built on the shaky foundation of coerced acquiescence, much of which took place during nineteenth-century disease epidemics in institutions like Philadelphia’s Lazaretto, and its almshouses, hospitals, and prisons. Institutional physicians bolstered professional credibility through the performance of intimate care. Understanding the embodied experience of disease is especially important for historians of medicine. Paying careful attention to archival mentions of embodied experiences—pain, pleasure, smell, touch, disgust—allows for a more thorough understanding of the lived experiences of historical actors. This research highlights the interconnectedness of epidemic diseases with each other and the professional identity of physicians, as well as the closely intertwined relationship between physical and moral health—and between personal and communal health—in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century medical imagination.

Subject Area

American history|Science history|American studies|Medicine

Recommended Citation

Holliday, Timothy Kent, "Morbid Sensations: Intimacy, Coercion, and Epidemic Disease in Philadelphia, 1793-1854" (2020). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI27957547.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI27957547

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