20 August 2009

Book Review: L. S. Jacyna, Medicine and Modernism: A Biography of Sir Henry Head

Amanda Mordavsky Caleb, at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has published the following review of L. S. Jacyna's Medicine and Modernism: A Biography of Sir Henry Head.

L. S. Jacyna's study of Henry Head is one of the finest medical biographies ever written - I say that without fear of exaggeration. It is a subtle, sensitive, and rich portrait, and one that deserves to be on the bookshelf of any neurology or neuroscience enthusist.

Since, however, Jacyna was my graduate adviser, I offer Caleb's words of praise rather than my own:


Students of the humanities and the sciences (and those who dare to cross the boundaries) are very familiar with the arguments regarding the separation of the humanities from the sciences. Historically, the focus has been largely on the nineteenth century, largely due to the influence of works such as Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots (1983) and George Levine’s Darwin and the Novelists (1992). Less prominent is the work on the relationship between science and modernism—although recently there has been an increase in articles on modernism and science, as well as university courses on modernism and physics. Medicine and modernism, however, have been passed over, specifically the work of Sir Henry Head. Head’s contributions to the development of medical science and specifically neurology are well-known to those who study the history of science. However, his role as a modernist writer and thinker has been only touched upon in passing, and never with much analysis of how his medical training influenced his modernist view. Stephen Jacyna seeks to correct this oversight by providing a biography of Head that represents his intersections between the worlds of medicine and modernism.

Jacyna’s biography is split into two halves: the first three chapters addresses Head’s professional career as a neurologist; the last three chapters consider Head’s personal and artistic life, specifically the “rag books” he and Ruth Mehew used to record their artistic views. Although this is perhaps an unusual approach to organizing a biography, it does allow Jacyna the opportunity to discuss the public and private in a separate manner, and to dedicate more attention to Mehew herself, who, like many wives of scientists, has been neglected by all academic communities. However, it seems to suggest a separation between the doctor and the poet; rather than bridging the gap between medicine and modernism, it increases it, at least on a superficial level.

If the reader can forgive this structural decision, the biography itself is excellent. Most of the previous work on Head was written by his professional colleagues and lacked the care Jacyna places on his private life, specifically his relationship with Mehew. Jacyna is a well-respected historian of medicine, and his skill at reconstructing the relevance of Head’s work to the development of neurology and psychology is unparalleled. Through a careful reconstruction of Head’s early career schooling at Cambridge and Halle through to his neurological experiments with W. H. R. Rivers, the reader is exposed to both Head’s drive and his importance to the development of neurological studies. Of particular note is the attention Head paid to his medical experiments, including his well-known experiment with Rivers in which he traced the neurological sensation by severing cutaneous nerves in his own arm. Jacyna expertly interweaves his own analysis with the letters of Head, Rivers and Mehew to create a comprehensive depiction of Head’s dedication to his profession and his passion.

Jacyna’s ability to historicize Head the medical man is not surprising; what is remarkable is his analysis of Head’s appreciation of and role in the development of modernism, which is evident in both his relationship with Mehew and his careful considerations of the connections between neurology and art. The second half of this biography is almost as much about Mehew as it is about Head, and while this might seem unorthodox, it is essential to understand how Head developed as both a medical man and a modernist thinker and writer. Mehew, as Jaycna rightly claims, was “something of a fin-de-siècle ‘New Woman,’” and it is her influence as a forward-thinking woman that helped to shape some of Head’s own views of aesthetics (155). What is particularly intriguing are their “rag books” which they used as a means of communicating their thoughts on art and literature, as well as a means to record their favourite or meaningful literary passages. The works of George Gissing, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert all held prominent positions within the volumes, and certainly influenced some of Head’s own views of aestheticism.

The “rag books” are an interesting insight into the thoughts and feelings of both Head and Mehew, but far more fascinating in regards to modernism is Head’s own theory of aesthetics, which was shaped by his experience as a neurologist. Head supported the idea of “phenomenalism,” which “connoted a receptiveness to sensory experience—free from any presuppositions about what might underlie those sensations—on the part of an observer who then sought to give these impressions an adequate linguistic representation” (223). As Jacyna points out, phenomenalism would have been appealing to both scientists and artists—particularly modernist—as both were seeking the same truths through impression. Head also recognized this connection; through his poetry and criticism, the reader can see how phenomenalism and impressionism allow for the connection between the neurological and the literary. This is the true strength of Jacyna’s argument regarding medicine and modernism and Head’s involvement in both: Head recognized the physiological connection between the image and the sensory experience, thereby providing a scientific understanding of impressionism and modernism.

While the structure of this biography is perhaps questionable, the quality of the content is undeniable. This is a thoughtful, critical—and oftentimes compassionate—view of an overlooked figure of the modernist period. Jacyna expertly intertwines two disciplines that are indeed complimentary, demonstrating how Sir Henry Head was a bridge between medicine and modernism, and suggesting that if science was Head’s mistress, modernism was his muse
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