Examines nineteenth-century scientists’ obsession with nerves and the nervous system.
Nervous Conditions explores the role of the body in the development of modern science, challenging the myth that modern science is built on a bedrock of objectivity and confident empiricism. In this fascinating look into the private world of British natural philosophers—including John Dalton, Lord Kelvin, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and many others—Elizabeth Green Musselman shows how the internal workings of their bodies played an important part in the sciences’ movement to the center of modern life, and how a scientific community and a nation struggled their way into existence.
Many of these natural philosophers endured serious nervous difficulties, particularly vision problems. They turned these weaknesses into strengths, however, by claiming that their well-disciplined mental skills enabled them to transcend their bodily frailties. Their adeptness at transcendence, they asserted, explained why men of science belonged at the heart of modern life, and qualified them to address such problems as unifying the British provinces into one nation, managing the industrial workplace, and accommodating religious plurality.
“…a rigorous work of complex but accessible science, literature, critical biography and cultural history … a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the history of science.” — The British Society for Literature and Science
“…this is an important revisionary work that casts nineteenth-century British natural philosophy and its practitioners in an unfamiliar but ultimately rather revealing light. It should be on the shelves of every historian of nineteenth-century culture.” — British Journal for the History of Science
“Musselman’s account is a challenging but imaginative work. In many respects, it seems less like a history and more like a creative attempt at historical metonymy.” — Medical History
“Solidly argued and researched, and well crafted down to its smallest details, Nervous Conditions presents a highly original approach to Victorian scientific culture by examining the personal character of Victorian natural philosophy—individual dispositions and the habits of scientific labor—and how they dovetailed with scientific concerns. It redraws the map of the transition from natural philosophy to natural science.” — Robert M. Brain, The University of British Columbia
“This book is erudite, fluidly written, exhaustively researched and documented—and entertaining. The way Green Musselman moves between literary, scientific, philosophical, and theological sources makes this a particularly impressive cultural history. A rich and engaging account of science’s anxiety about its own empirical authority, it makes a valuable contribution to the history of science.” — Joel Faflak, coeditor of Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism
Elizabeth Green Musselman is Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University.