The changing tastes in disease: From consumption to Gulf War Syndrome, how sicknesses fall in and out of fashion
Consumption 'was known as a poetic or beautiful disease'

By
Claire Bates

PUBLISHED:

09:36 GMT, 11 July 2012

|

UPDATED:

10:55 GMT, 11 July 2012

Why is it that some diseases like Aids and Sars capture the public's attention while other serious illnesses remain stubbornly under the radar

This is the question being addressed in a ground-breaking new research project at Northumbria University.

Dr Clark Lawlor and his team plan to find out why some medical conditions have become fashionable and even viewed as 'attractive' in the past.

Romantic: Ben Whishaw playing John Keats in the film Bright Star. Fans of the poet romanticised his death from consumption (now known as TB)

Consumption: Ben Whishaw playing John Keats in the film Bright Star. Fans of the poet romanticised his death from TB

They hope this could give an insight to today's policymakers as well as help affected patients.

Dr Lawlor: 'From consumption and gout
in the 18th century to 'thinspiration' websites praising anorexia and
SARS or Swine Flu more recently, diseases come and go – sometimes with
alarming rapidity.

'This project will address a cultural
and medical phenomenon that is still little understood, particularly in
its historical dimensions. No major project has yet answered the
question of how fashionable diseases come to be formed, maintained and
removed from history.'

The three-year project, which will be funded by a 250,000 grant from the Leverhulme Trust, will examine literature, medicine and culture from 1660 – 1832 and compare and contrast their findings with the present day.

Dr Lawlor added: 'Disease needs to be looked at in its socio-cultural context. Throughout history some diseases have been ‘romanticised.’

'Consumption, for example, was known as a poetic or beautiful disease.'

Privilege: This 1800 image shows a man with gout being transported to the hospital on a carrying chair. The painful condition was linked with good living

Privilege: This 1800 image shows a man with gout being transported to the hospital on a carrying chair. The painful condition was linked with good living

Shellshock: Combat stress first came to mass public attention during WW1, when the British army dealt with 80000 cases

Shellshock: Combat stress first came to mass public attention during WW1, when the British army dealt with 80000 cases

Consumption is an old-fashioned word for tuberculosis, which was rampant in the 19th century. It killed a number of high-profile writers such as the poet John Keats when he was just 25, cementing the condition in popular culture.

Dr Lawlor said: 'Those who suffered from it had symptoms thought to be beneficial: men and women became thin with alternately red and pale cheeks and allegedly had a greater degree of sensibility and intelligence than others.'

Some conditions such as gout were viewed as a sign of wealth and good living.

Dr Lawlor said: 'There's a certain amount of social trending with disease and this research will shed light on how different diseases are tackled by society'

Dr Lawlor said: 'There's a certain amount of social trending with disease and this research will shed light on how different diseases are tackled by society'

The project will include looking at
fashionable diseases from various perspectives including gender, class,
age, race and religion.

'We will be looking at the paradox of people considering some diseases as fashionable, how and why some diseases become and remain fashionable and then go out of fashion. Gulf War Syndrome, for example, was constantly in the media for a short space of time but has now dropped off the radar,' Dr Lawlor said.

In Victorian times it was quite common for women suffering from mood swings and anxiety to be diagnosed as having a fit of 'the vapours.' This was the female equivalent of melancholy found in men. Both terms have now fallen out of use as the medical profession have gained a greater understanding of mental illness.

By putting diseases into a social and
cultural context, the researchers hope to be able to offer solutions as
to how disease might best be tackled.

The project builds on a similar research project – Before Depression – which looked at depression through the ages. Dr Lawlor has previously noted that the explosion in the number of cases of depression coinciding with the marketing of Prozac.

He said: 'If disease is seen positively in your culture, then it might actually improve your chances of recovery.'