Sunday, 29 November 2015

'The Doctor': Profession rather than Person

By Bethany Frost

            During the Victorian Era, science and medicine saw a revolution: improvement was made with new steel tools and anesthetics; and new procedures prevented patients from getting infections. This change was also presented in Victorian Literature, through doctor-characters, such as Lydgate in Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Mr Gibson in Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. Yet within these novels and through this revolution revealed the demands of a doctor, their lack of domesticity and lost identity as a human being: 'It was the same professional mindset that accommodated the empirical advances of surgery later in the century, and informed the portraits of fictional surgeons whose progressive scientism all but destroy their humanity and compassion' (Sparks 4). 

'Victorian Literature’s most famous doctor, the surgeon Tertius Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872), exemplifies the ill fit between the marriage plot and the doctor-character.' (Sparks 3). Under a male pseudonym, George Eliot produced one of her most famous works: Middlemarch. Instead of a love story, Eliot chose to challenge the ideas of marriage and battle it with profession, revealing the disadvantages of both. This is most displayed through her two major characters: Lydgate and Rosamund. 
(1) Eliot's book cover
What is evident in the novel is Lydgate’s responsibilities as a surgeon and a husband; yet combining both has it's difficulties. For example, Lydgate's lacks the ability to show sympathy or understand other men because of his scientific mindset: "He had no power of imagining the part which the want of money plays in determining the actions of men." (209). What is later evident is when his love for Rosamund collides with his career, specifically his finance after she overspends. This, therefore, damages Lydgate's career, and ability to financially continue his research. It is argued in Tabitha Sparks' The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices that 'the collision of the medical/professional and emotional spheres in their marriage typifies the friction between doctor-characters and domestic, romantic plots in the Victorian novel across the period.' (3)
Lydgate's responsibilities as a doctor is demanding, especially during this era where science and medicine is constantly evolving. However, his ability to have a domestic life, having Rosamund as a wife and form a emotional relationship, causes friction with his career and his mindset. Therefore discourages the chance of domesticity and leads to Lydgate and Rosamund's unhappy relationship.

The Old Operating Theatre
When researching Victorian Surgeons, the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London was a favourable location. When entering St. Thomas Street, the outside of the Theatre seems unusual, as it was a tall tower beside a church. 'The wards of the south wing of St. Thomas’ Hospital were built around St. Thomas’ Church' (Flude). This meant that the Herb Garret in the roof of the church was converted in an Operating Theatre in 1882. On the website of the Museum, History of St Thomas' Hospital, Kevin Flude explains how it 'provided a separation from the ward. It gave separate entrance for students, and afford a measure of sound proofing. It was also approximately at the same level as the women’s surgical ward which aided the transport of patients to the theatre.' (Flude). 
(2) Outside the Operating Theatre in 1825 (3) Outside the Operating Theatre in 2008
Since it is in the roof of the church, you must climb a tall wooden spiral staircase leading to the first room: the Herb Garret. The room contains medieval remedies and ingredients used for coughs and colds, but further through the room there are displays of surgical equipment for midwives, including forceps, hooks, clamps and calipers. Below show forceps used to remove the child and underneath displays the 'Cervical Dilator' (the metal instrument with eight prongs).
(4) Equipment for Midwives
At the back of this room, there is a corridor that leads to the Operating Theatre. Within the corridor there are more displays containing surgery cases, knives of different sizes and saws. It was very unnerving seeing these, knowing that the equipment had been previously used to perform surgery on real Victorian people. One of the surgical cases was owned
(5) Surgical Case
by Edward Mason Wrench (1833-1912) who trained at St Thomas' Hospital. In the case consisted of:
1. Two Ebony handled saws
2. Trephines 
3. Tourniquet 
4. Forceps
5. Bullet Extractor
6. Amputation Knives
7. Bone Nippers
In the next display case, there are early inventions of antiseptic liquids and anesthetic masks. J.T.H. Connor explains in his essay The Victorian Revolution in Surgery that 'By the 1880s, antiseptic surgery had transformed into aseptic surgery as knowledge about pathogenic bacteria accumulated. Surgeons now concentrated their efforts on excluding disease-causing bacteria from incisions and amputation sites by ensuring that their own hands had been thoroughly cleaned and their street clothes were covered by clean white gowns.' (54) Victorian surgery was transforming, the Museum displayed this transition from old methods to new.
(6) antiseptic liquids and anesthetic masks

To enter the Operating Theatre, you have a climb a small set of stairs onto the balcony area looking down at the center, where a small wooden operating table stands in the center. 'The Theatre was purpose built to maximize the light from above, with a large skylight. Although not heated or ventilated, it provided an ideal, albeit small, area for demonstrating surgical skills.' (Flude). On the wall there is a plaque saying: ‘Miseratione Non Mercede’ which was explained underneath to mean 'For compassion not for gain'. Beside it is a coat hanger for the surgeon’s coat and a basin for hygiene use. 
(7) The Operating Theatre

Wives and Daughters
After seeing this museum, there is a sense of professionalism with a Surgeon's work; seeing the transformation of surgery and medicine. When looking for another Victorian Literature book that displays a doctor-character, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters seemed most usefulAlthough the protagonist is Molly Gibson, Mr Gibson, her father and the town Doctor, displays the same recurring themes of constrained domesticity and demanding professionalism. 'Mr. Gibson's work as a surgeon limits his emotional perception. This is not because of the scientific orientation of surgery...but rather because of his field's demand for dogged, ambitious and practical-minded professionals.' (Spark 4) Through Mr. Gibson’s experiences we see the struggle of being a doctor during the Victorian era, but the novel also highlights how his profession becomes his identity. Mr. Gibson lacks a sense of class position, this is shown in the novel when he is often invited to dine with a upper class family: "The grandeur of being an invited guest to dinner at the Towers from time to time, gave him but little pleasure for many years, but it was a form to be gone through in the way of his profession, without any idea of social gratification." (70)
(8) Gaskell's book cover
What can also be shown is the expectation of doctors, for example Mr. Hall was the previous doctor of the town and took Mr. Gibson as a partner. In the description of Mr. Hall, it explains: “But, blind and deaf, and rheumatic as he might be, he was still Mr. Hall, the doctor who could heal all their ailments – unless they died meanwhile – and he had no right to speak of growing old, and taking a partner.” (60). This shows a dependence the town had on their doctor, and that a doctor having any domesticity was seen as wrong. Doctors therefore had a responsibility for their patients, to the extent they had no freedom to have a life of their own. However, for Mr. Gibson, it is more complex. 
To start with, Mr. Gibson is rarely referred to with his name, but rather ‘the doctor’, thereby losing his identity as anything else other than a healer. His battle between emotion and profession is displayed with his daughter, Molly: “Mr. Gibson’s position seemed settled for life, both socially and professionally. He was a widower, and likely to remain so; his domestic affections were center on little Molly, but even to her, in their most private moments, he did not give way to much expression of his feelings.” (63). This shows his struggle to express emotion, which is also evident in Lydgate in Middlemarch. However, Tabitha Sparks explains: 'Gibson’s emotional detachment shapes the parenting decisions that lead to his own marital unhappiness and, over time, make Molly vulnerable to imprudent influences.' (75). This is shown when he remarries, giving Molly a step-mother because he believes she needs a female figure in her life rather than marrying for his own needs.
Both Lydgate and Mr Gibson display a separation in life emotionally; that they lack the ability to sympathize with others because of their need for professionalism in their vocation as medicine and science are constantly changing during the Victorian era. To conclude, a doctor's profession during the Victoria era became an identity in social class but it also lacked the ability to have a domesticated life due to it's demands emotionally and professionally. 

(1491 words)

Works Cited
Connor, J.T.H. "The Victorian Revolution in Surgery". Science. 2 April 2004. Vol 304 (5667). Web. 27 November 2015. <>

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Middlesex: Penguin Books. 1965.

Flude, Kevin. "History of St Thomas' Hopsital" The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret. Web. 14 Nov 2015. <>

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Wives and Daughters. Middlesex: Penguin Books. 1969.

Spark, Tabitha. The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices. Farnham: Ashgate. 2009.

1. Behold the Stars. "Middlemarch by George Eliot". Online Image. Blogspot. 29 Dec 2013. Web. 16 Nov 2015. <>

2. Flude, Kevin. "The Discovery of the Old Operating Theatre". Online Image. The Old Operating Theatre Museum & Herb Garret. 3 Aug 2011Web. 14 Nov 2015. <>

3. Chadwick, N. "The Old Operating Theatre Museum, St Thomas St." Online Image. Geograph. 8 Dec 2008. Web. 15 Nov 2015. <>

4-7. Taken by B Frost at The Old Operating Theatre Museum in St Thomas street, London. 14 Nov 2015.

8. Behold the Stars. "Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell". Online Image. Blogspot. 28 May 2015. Web. 16 Nov 2015 <>

1 comment:

  1. Hi Beth

    Interesting post, It was intriguing to learn about the instruments used for old procedures and also to find out about the operating theatre museum. Written well and relates well to the text.