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The re-imagination of the scientific physician in American literature, 1850--1930

Joshua A Dolezal, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


By tracing the iconology of doctor characters in American literature, I extend Helen Longino's study of science as social knowledge and Michel Foucault's analysis of the interplay between political power and scientific discourse. Whereas Longino and Foucault argue that culture influences science, I maintain that the reverse is also evident in fictional depictions of physicians, especially medical villains, who reflect the alienation of patients by the clinical tradition. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter represents medical villainy in Roger Chillingworth's violation of the individual through rhetorical deception and in his use of herbal remedies to prolong Arthur Dimmesdale's psychological torture. Reversing this skeptical view of the scientific physician requires a transformation of medical discourse. Oliver Wendell Holmes devotes much of his scientific work to this process. His influence on medical culture is evident in the physicians whom Willa Cather befriended throughout her life: professional doctors who co-mingled scientific and literary interests. Cather's early fiction consequently reveals the emergence of new doctor characters in American literature, such as Howard Archie, of The Song of the Lark, who becomes an aspiring diva's closest friend. Thus, medical science and literary culture co-evolve: clinical detachment engenders Hawthorne's medical villains, fueling Holmes's medical reforms, which shape Cather's fiction. ^

Subject Area

History of Science|Literature, American

Recommended Citation

Dolezal, Joshua A, "The re-imagination of the scientific physician in American literature, 1850--1930" (2005). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3176774.