The Vocabulary of Deformity - A Lunchtime Talk

Up until the early twentieth century, the word ‘monster’ was commonly used to describe people with birth defects. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was used in a medical context, with doctors collecting specimens of deformed foetuses and publishing case studies on men and women with disfigurations in an attempt to understand the causes of ‘monstrosity.’

The pathology section of the Hunterian collection contains a hundred and twenty-one specimens of animals and foetuses with various physical deformities collected by Hunter during his lifetime and added to by Dr. Allen Thomson, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Glasgow during the mid-nineteenth century. Furthermore, the University's Special Collections contains Hunter’s own catalogue of his collection, complete with his description and medical notes on each specimen.

Using these specimens alongside Hunter’s catalogue, and comparing this to a later edition with the annotations of the late nineteenth-century Professor of Pathology, John H. Teacher, my project will trace the development of understandings of deformity from the eighteenth century through to the end of the nineteenth. My focus has not only been on the actual medical knowledge itself but on the language used in order to relate this knowledge. This language, I believe, became increasingly systematic and professionalised in order to reflect the image of respect and assertiveness that physicians were trying to project of themselves by the late nineteenth century.


Alexandra Foulds, 2nd year PhD candidate - English literature

PhD Research: ‘Power and Disempowerment: Dis/Abling the Late Nineteenth-Century Monster’
My research focuses on the relationship between monstrosity and disability in late nineteenth-century fiction. My argument is that monstrosity in the Gothic and Science fiction of this period is increasingly presented using the signifiers of disability in order to create a monster that is both vulnerable and, at times, sympathetic.