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Doctoral Thesis

Visualising Venereal Disease in London c.1780–1860


My PhD thesis explores the role of visual representation in the changing understandings of venereal disease from the later eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth. This was a period in which the identities of infectious diseases were undergoing profound changes. During much of the early modern period sickness was conceptualised as the result of humoural misalignment in the individual body, a view that came to change over the course of the eighteenth century. Through the practice of pathological anatomy – the linking of the morbid appearance of the internal body with external signs of disease – conditions such as venereal disease were given physical identities within the flesh. Simultaneously, visual representations of the body that had once depicted only healthy anatomical structure began to show diseased and decayed flesh. I argue that such visual representations, whether in the form of atlas illustrations, patient portraits, or pedagogical aids such as wax models, played a vital part in creating and disseminating new thinking about venereal disease.

Focusing on London, this project examines the place of visual representations in the classification of the disease, medical teaching and practice, and wider social responses to venereal disease within several different spaces in London’s medical marketplace, such as public museums, private schools, hospitals and university medical departments. I utilise a wide range of visual and material sources, from illustrations in medical books to watercolour portraits to pathological preparations. A selection of these sources can be viewed in the gallery.

If you would like more information on the thesis or my research in general please get in touch - Harriet dot Palfreyman at warwick dot ac dot uk