Wellcome Trust Workshop: ‘Reading and Replicating Bodies: Mimicry in Medicine and Culture, 1790-1914’, Oxford, 26th March

Reading and Replicating Bodies: Mimicry in Medicine and Culture, 1790-1914

26th March 2015. 10.45-18.00 (registration from 9.45)

One-day Interdisciplinary workshop, funded by the Wellcome Trust

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), University of Oxford


In the nineteenth century, to read a body was to replicate it. From making anatomical drawings to designing prosthetics, medical practices duplicated human tissue on an unprecedented scale. Yet this urge to copy was also tainted, and literary depictions of scientists – from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau – cast the desire to replicate a living body as absorbing and abhorrent in turn. Replication was also an important topic in the era’s sciences of mind. Writers such as Charles Bell, Charles Darwin and James Mark Baldwin, depictedhumans as mirrors, believing an innate compulsion to imitate could explain the development of sympathy (later empathy) language and laws. Yet, here imitation was also problematic, framed as a primitive impulse, most violently displayed by the period’s ‘othered’ bodies: hysterics, non-Europeans, women, the deaf and the degenerate. This workshop will explore how Victorian science, medicine and the arts interacted to construct the body as an object and subject of imitation. It will consider how much of today’s ambivalence about replicating bodies – from ethical questions about cloning to the much-hyped concept of ‘mirror neurons’ – do we owe to practices and concepts from the nineteenth century.

Speakers include

  • Christopher Pittard (University of Portsmouth): ‘V for Ventriloquism: Powers of Vocal Mimicry in Henry Cockton’s Valentine Vox’.

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