Disfiguring disease in medical and popular perceptions

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By | Early Medicine, Events and Visits

The next seminar in the 2016–17 History of Pre-Modern Medicine seminar series takes place on Tuesday 25th October.

Scene of amazed people, 1609.

EPB/1940/B: André Du Laurens, De mirabili strumas sanandi vi solis Galliae regibus christianissimis divinitus concessa liber unus (Paris: Apud Marcum Orry, 1609), folded frontispiece. Wellcome Images L0048871.

Speaker: Professor Luke Demaitre (University of Virginia)

Disfiguring disease in medical and popular perceptions: ‘aspectus’ and ‘spectaculum’


Pre-modern records attest to various disfigurements caused by disease, which ranged from skin blemishes to facial distortion and bodily deformity. Responses to these diseases as disabling or contagious were secondary to impressions of the disfigured appearance. This fact may seem too obvious to state, but it tends to be overlooked in histories of dramatic disease. Aside from the far-reaching and timeless implications, the primacy of appearance is of historical interest because it opens perspectives on cultural sensitivities and social contexts. In particular, immediate responses to disfigurement reflect a gradual divergence between the medical gaze and popular perception – notwithstanding the dynamic interaction between science and everyday life. The scientist and practitioner view appearances aggressively and analytically as signs of underlying bodily conditions or events. They devote relatively little attention to disfigurements and, with the notable exception of two groups, they report them in unemotional terms. The patient and the lay bystander, on the other hand, react instantly, emotionally and holistically to the sensory stimuli of appearance, especially to danger, ugliness and misery. The emotions, which range from fear and revulsion to charity, are fostered as well as expressed in words and pictures.


Wellcome Library, 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

Doors open at 6pm, seminar will start at 6.15pm.

The seminar series is focused on pre-modern medicine, which we take to cover European and non-European history before the 20th century (antiquity, medieval and early modern history, some elements of 19th-century medicine).

Further details on the seminar series are available in a previous post.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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