There are few emotions as ubiquitous or as tricky to pin down as nostalgia. One of the reasons for its elusiveness is that nostalgia can’t seem to sit still. It is always on the move and is always changing. Just a hundred years ago or so, it was a sickness, something that afflicted servants in seventeenth-century Switzerland, attracted the attention of medicine’s finest minds in eighteenth-century England, and killed Civil War soldiers in nineteenth-century America. Today, things are different. It no longer affects the body, just the mind. We no longer call it a “malady of memory,” or attempt to treat nostalgic patients with brisk walks and bloodletting. Nostalgia is no longer a fatal diagnosis. But it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that nostalgia acquired a version of its contemporary meaning. Sometime in the 1950s, it was turned from a sickness acquired by a yearning for a distant place, into a relatively benign longing for a by-gone era. Now, for many people, it is little more than a fond feeling for the past—a mostly harmless condition experienced by antiquarians and sentimentalists.
I am currently writing a book about the history of nostalgia, due to be published by Picador in June 2024. The book blends neuroscience and psychology with the history of medicine and the emotions to animate the past and present for scholars and general readers alike. Nostalgia: A Biography ranges widely, from the wild flowered slopes of the Swiss Alps in the seventeenth century, to the streets of Paris in the Second Republic, to Jewish refugees in 1930s Chicago, to British doctors in 1970s Basingstoke, to shoppers in Bangalore at the dawn of the new millennium.
But Nostalgia: A Biography is much more than a compendium of quirky tales. Instead, it uses one emotion as a lens to consider the history of medicine, the changing pace of society, our collective feelings of regret, dislocation, and belonging, the conditions of modern and contemporary work, and the politics of fear and anxiety. Expressions of nostalgia are one way we communicate a desire for the past, dissatisfaction about the present, and our visions for the future. In this way, this is not just a history but an analysis of what we are doing now, how we feel about it, and what we might want to change about the world in which we live.
I am represented by Oli Munson at AM Heath.
Urinary Tract Infections
About half of all women will, at some point in their life, get a Urinary Tract Infection - an infection of the urethra, bladder, or kidneys. For many people, it can easily be cleared up by over-the-counter remedies or widely available antibiotics. That, and its sheer prevalence, means that it is hardly an exciting disease. It has, since its identification in the nineteenth century, attracted very little attention from medical researchers and most general practitioners seem to subconsciously slot it into the category of a mild nuisance rather than a major source of pain and suffering worthy of their care and attention. And yet, UTIs can be life-threatening (for the elderly), chronic, and almost impossible to treat effectively. Drawing on my own experiences as a woman with recurrent UTIs, and unlike the medical profession, this project takes UTIs seriously. Together with filmmaker Rita Maria Conry, I made The UTI Documentary and we're curating a companion Instagram called Self Examination. Both are part of the Healthy Scepticism project.
Together with Dr Caitjan Gainty, I run the Healthy Scepticism project. Funded by the Wellcome Trust and King's College London, the project seeks to "examine how evidence about health and healthcare has come to occupy such an inflexible space, such that it must only be “right” or “wrong,” rather than what it actually is: continually in progress, malleable, flexible and shifting, always in revision, always in progress. How did we become a society, a world, a globe so invested in evidence that we forgot that, as any good detective will tell you, it’s just the stuff we follow to draw the best conclusions we can, rather than an immutable, permanent, absolute record of what is and will always be." We write about NHS 'heroes', vaccine hesitancy, and health inequalities. You can sign up for our free newsletter here.
Working and Feeling in the Modern British Hospital
The NHS is Britain’s largest single employer, with most of its staff working in hospitals. Despite complaints from staff about the decline of deference; the alienation, individualism, and managerialism that supposedly now permeates healthcare institutions; and the increasing threat of stress, burnout, and emotional ill-health to NHS staff, we know little about how working life in a British hospital has changed over the past seventy years. To address this gap, this project explores the experience of NHS hospital staff and examines the impact of new policies, practices, and ideologies on ‘ordinary’ workers’ feelings and experiences. With help from oral history interviews, archival research, and observations, I use the hospital as a case study to investigate the shifting emotions and experiences of work in Britain since 1948.
Senses and Modern Health/Care Environments
I am part of the Senses and Modern Health/Care Environments network. Funded by the Wellcome Trust and led by Dr Victoria Bates, the network explores opportunities for collaborative research and funding in the sensory history of healthcare environments. We are developing interdisciplinary methodologies and thinking ambitiously and creatively about the potential for collective publications in the field.
Surgery & Emotion
As research and engagement fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project, Surgery & Emotion, I investigated the recent and contemporary history of surgeons’ wellbeing and emotional distress. I published articles about nostalgia, grief, resilience, professional identity, and COVID-19. As part of this project, I am writing a book for Manchester University Press called Cold, Hard Steel: The Surgical Stereotype Past & Present. A reviewer said, ‘This was the most interesting book proposal that I have read in a long time. The work is fascinating, the writing clear, and the interpretation groundbreaking’.
During that project, I collaborated with healthcare professionals and policymakers to find useful and productive connections between past and present. If you work in either of those fields and are interested in talking about NHS workforce wellbeing, please do get in touch.
Cancer in Nineteenth-Century Britain
My PhD thesis, and subsequent book, offers the first medical, cultural, and social history of cancer in nineteenth-century Britain. It begins by looking at a community of doctors and patients who lived and worked in the streets surrounding the Middlesex Hospital in London. It follows in their footsteps as they walked the labyrinthine lanes and passages that branched off Tottenham Court Road; then, through seven chapters, its focus expands to successively include the rivers, lakes, and forests of England, the mountains, poverty, and hunger of the four nations of the British Isles, the reluctant and resistant inhabitants of the British Empire, and the networks of scientists and doctors spread across Europe and North America.
The Cancer Problem argues that it was in the nineteenth century that cancer acquired the unique emotional, symbolic, and politicized status it maintains today. Through an exploration of the construction, deployment, and emotional consequences of the disease’s incurability, this book reframes our conceptualization of the relationship between medicine and modern life and reshapes our understanding of chronic and incurable maladies. One of the anonymous readers wrote, ‘It would not surprise me if this monograph is still considered a seminal study in decades to come due to its high quality and breaking of new academic ground’.