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From Frankenstein to Sherlock Holmes, RMU Professor Explores the Role of Medicine in Victorian Literature

Friday, April 13, 2012

Pittsburgh – Given the esteem with which physicians are held in contemporary society, it’s hard to imagine a time when medicine was regarded as the least reputable of the sciences, and that the line between “healer” and “quack” was barely distinguishable.

But that was certainly the case in Victorian England, which RMU professor Sylvia Pamboukian captures in her new book, Doctoring the Novel: Medicine and Quackery from Shelley to Doyle, published by Ohio University Press.

Pamboukian, associate professor of English, demonstrates how the Victorians’ ambivalence and, at times, outright disdain for the medical profession is reflected in the literature of the period – including Frankenstein, Bleak House, and the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Pamboukian opens her book with an exploration of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein, a metaphor for the horror with which the study of anatomy was regarded, and in particular its practitioners’ use of cadavers. “In Victor Frankenstein, Shelley explores this thread of early nineteenth-century culture and positions anatomy as a signifier not of science, progress, and reason but of crime, immorality, and even incompetence,” Pamboukian writes.

As Victorian novels reveal, physicians had little control over how the public perceived them. They faced a dilemma in trying to boost their reputation, given that self-promotion, including advertising, was regarded as evidence of quackery. Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle captured this tension in their work, according to Pamboukian.

“It wasn’t really doctors who were in charge of what was considered medicine and what was considered quackery,” she said.

To order Doctoring the Novel, go to

Robert Morris University, founded in 1921, is a private, four-year institution with an enrollment of approximately 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university offers 60 undergraduate and 20 graduate programs. An estimated 22,000 alumni live and work in western Pennsylvania.