Material Witnesses: Deconstructing Networks Of Credibility And Objectivity In Medical Narratives From Mary Toft To The Contraceptive Pill
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Department of English: English Studies
Cynthia A Huff
In this dissertation, I argue that to better understand the tangled, embedded human and nonhuman subjects and how their testimonies function in western medical history, we need to first understand their erasure. By using relationality as a reading method, I break apart who and with whom individuals make medical decisions by considering what constitutes evidence. In the Mary Toft case, expert witnessing informs the ways in which a reader trusts what the narrator claims. The medicolegal conventions of courtroom testimony shape the ways in which medical men wrote their pamphlets. These men shore up their credibility through descriptions of nonhuman animals and of material actants. I found these descriptions to hold either equal or greater credibility than Toft herself, even though Toft herself lied and these descriptions are flawed. Thus, it is through narrative devices that the medical authors of these pamphlets redeem themselves. I also critically engaged objectivity throughout this project. The emphasis on maintaining objectivity and thus explanatory power seeps into the intimate spaces of medicine at home and of foodstuff in the nineteenth century, particularly milk. This seepage into the domestic space may appear to be an affront to Victorian values, since the home was the bastion of the family and privacy; however, increased regulation of foodstuff and of public hygiene by the late nineteenth century, coupled with medical science’s authority over what it means to be clean, meant that the middle classes soon undertook to clean their personal spaces—inside and outside the body. I continue to critically engage objectivity in the fourth chapter. My reading of twentieth century examples of patient package inserts that accompanied early forms of contraceptive pills questions a patient’s use of these texts. I find that these informational sheets can contribute to withholding, skewing, or misleading descriptions of the risk(s) of these medications. This medical information clog is thusly used as proof that medical experts are essential to interpreting medical knowledge for patients rather than as proof of needed clarity in the text. Additionally, I find that potential resolutions to the issue of obstructing knowledge flow have failed. Later editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves take on the narrative strategies that position the reader as helpless, the text as facilitative, and western medicine as the most authoritative, meaning the battle to unseat medical patriarchy’s hold over our bodies has been lost. In the fifth chapter of this dissertation, I redesign English 160: Introduction to Studies in Women’s Writing as “Women Medical Writers/Writing Women’s Medicine.” I develop a posthuman feminist pedagogy by building upon Karin Murris’s posthuman child to reimagine what characterizes an active student. This reimagining allows me to develop a course that introduces students both to the troubles and contradictions within our very own western medical culture and to the scholarly practice of critical intersectionality as a research strategy. The design of this course especially affects life writing pedagogies and the design of life writing courses as I use archival materials in the classroom. Teaching these skillsets to undergraduates differs from other solutions medical narrative scholars have suggested. By including nonliterary genres, like the ones I studied in this dissertation, in undergraduate literary study because this is where the interpretation of patient/illness happens. Author/practitioners interpret, assume, and preconceive descriptions based on these nonliterary genres, so it makes sense to study those very texts. Thus, if we are to truly think critically about moral issues in western medicine, then we must include the sites at which these moral issues are brought to fruition.
Roberts, Krista Elizabeth, "Material Witnesses: Deconstructing Networks Of Credibility And Objectivity In Medical Narratives From Mary Toft To The Contraceptive Pill" (2021). Theses and Dissertations. 1404.
Imported from Roberts_ilstu_0092E_11879.pdf