The Cabinet of Doctor Keats

Romantic Medicine and John Keats

by Hermione de Almeida
Oxford University Press, 418 pp., $45.00

One of the great intellectual attractions of Romanticism is that it arose in a period when science and art were still talking intelligently to each other. There was no social gap between the Two Cultures. The greatest British experimental chemist of the day, Sir Humphry Davy, published a collection of his own poetry and corrected the proofs of the Lyrical Ballads. Erasmus Darwin formulated his theories of botany, and the sexual life of plants, in bouncing verse. Coleridge attended the lectures of Davy to “renew his stock of metaphors,” and engaged in the vitalist controversy about the nature of biological life with the surgeons William Lawrence and John Abernethy between 1816 and 1819. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley all owned microscopes at some point in their careers. (Shelley had to pawn his, when he eloped.) Mary Shelley studied galvanic theory. Keats attended, and made notes on, the lectures of both the chief surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, Sir Astley Cooper, and the leading critic William Hazlitt. Even Lord Byron peered cautiously through a telescope in the Swiss mountains (though it may be questioned exactly what form of heavenly bodies he was observing).

This period of intense exchange between scientists and imaginative writers, which lasted for perhaps two generations, was made possible by a temporary shift away from the “hard” mechanistic and mathematical culture of the Enlightenment, in favor of the “soft,” fluid, or speculative culture of the Romantic life sciences. This shift itself reflected the more general, revolutionary upheavals throughout Europe. In a brilliant essay cited by Almeida, “Lamarck and Darwin in the History of Science” (1959), C. C. Gillispie has defined this division of labor:

From Newton to Darwin the preference of romantic thinkers for the sciences of life is as striking as the predilection of rationalistic thinkers for the physical sciences. So it was that Voltaire popularized physics and Rousseau botany. So it was that Paley referred a moral philosophy to astronomy and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to natural history. It is no accident that the Jardin des Plantes was the one scientific institution to flourish in the radical democratic phase of the French Revolution, which struck down all the others.

For modern criticism, itself largely trapped in a “hard” Two Cultures dichotomy, the problem has been to reconstruct the porous arts-science world of Romanticism, in a way that genuinely illuminates individual texts. There have been some notable recent successes in the work of Owsei Temkin, Desmond King-Hele, and Roy Porter, which throw particular light on the writings of Coleridge and Shelley. In 1984, Donald Goellnicht published a striking monograph, The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science, which examined in detail the six years of medical apprenticeships undertaken by Keats in 1810–1816, culminating in his qualification as an apothecary under the newly created Society for Apothecaries Act of 1815.

Hermione de Almeida, of the University of Miami, has taken up the investigation at this point, in a larger, more ambitious book that seeks to recreate the entire Romantic medical culture …

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