This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Georgia Lockwood Estrin, digital volunteer

How is illness intertwined with culture? At the Royal Society’s One Culture festival, Brian Dillon spoke about hypochondria as a concept in history, medicine and culture. The talk focused around his book, Tormented Hope’, which illustrates the lives of seven well-known names who lived with this illness at various points throughout history. Over this time, the definition and understanding of hypochondria has changed dramatically, which in turn dramatically changed the lives of those forced to live with it.

Brian Dillon speaking at One Culture

Originally, the word hypochondria was derived from a long standing notion that physical diseases, mainly digestive disorders, are related to mental illness. This concept seems far from our current perception of a hypochondriac, as a fully psychological disorder; but the illness was then primarily thought of as a physical problem, with anxiety and other psychological factors being only a secondary feature. However, even then, reports of hypochondriacs being very sensitive to the idea of illness, and even becoming violent at the notion that the illness was anything other than physical, gives us an insight into the evolution of the term hypochondriac.

Throughout the talk, the ideas of extreme sensitivity to the world on one hand, and the withdrawal from the world on the other appeared as central themes of hypochondriacs throughout history and culture. Charlotte Brontë was diagnosed with hypochondria, although her suffering now might be treated more as a psychological break down. Brian Dillon illustrated hints of her illness in the books she is famous for, with the huge sensitivity of characters to the way others look and feel, which was uncharacteristic of writing at her time. Edgar Allan Poe, also a sufferer, takes this overwhelming sensitivity to the world to another extreme, as illustrated in his play ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, where even the walls of Usher Hall are morbidly melancholic and sensitive.

Whilst this over-sensitivity to the world caused suffering to these characters, benefits of this illness were also apparent. Darwin is even said to have attributed his scientific successes to his suffering from hypochondria. Florence Nightingale certainly used her illness to get time and space for herself, enabling her to think and study.

So whilst the term hypochondria has been used to describe a huge spectrum of people, both with and without actual physical illness, there are central themes which have been apparent throughout history and culture. The conflict between fear of illness and benefit of illness, has to some extent been the making of these famous characters – with extreme sensitivity bringing about creativity; and withdrawal from the world also encouraging and giving time to engage with this creativity. Hypochondria, therefore, appears to be an illness, whether physical or psychological, which has allowed characters ‘to think and to write’, which has in many cases led to their success.

After the talk I caught up with Brian – download a podcast of our interview here.

Brian Dillon at the Royal Society

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