Science, Medicine & Women in Middlemarch

I started out the summer ambitiously, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Perceiving a declining ability to read fiction, I decided I needed to relearn how to not immediately try and find the thesis in any piece of writing I laid eyes on. What better tome to begin with than one I’d heard whispers around the department as being full of science and gender themes?!

I was in for a treat, but one for which I’d have to work pretty hard. George Eliot is no Jane Austen, and Middlemarch is no light read. In addition to science and gender, Eliot touches on provincial life, religion, ethics/morality, politics (and this one was probably the most prevalent), some technology, love and relationships, change, and so, so much more. While most of the notes I took and things I thought about orbited around a scientific and gendered perspective, I got a lot more from the book than that. And I’ll probably get something entirely different when I inevitably give it another read in a few years.

The book is a study of country life in England, and it is staged in a provincial town. It follows the lives of quite a few of the town’s residents, which is part of the reason the book is so damn long (my copy was 613 pages). I quickly located my favorite character in Tertius Lydgate, a physician from out of town with family in high places and some new, radical ideas about how to treat illness. He trained in Paris, which I found very interesting — at the time (1820s and 30s), the Parisian medical school and attached hospital were training physicians in the anatomo-pathological methodology. Inspired by rational, mathematical methods, these men (one of which is mentioned often in the book, Pierre C.A. Louis) found that patients treated with medicines of the time did not fare any better than those left more or less alone. As a result, these physicians and the students they taught thought it’d be more useful to let diseases take their course. Some of the sick died, after which time the medical men would dissect them and attempt to correlate their diseases/symptoms with internal “lesions,” or abnormalities. In this way, they hoped to discover the true causes of illness and propose new, more effective therapeutic options.

Lydgate’s medical philosophy, and how he feels about the state of medicine in England, reflect his French training. His impetus for entering the profession lay in a perception that the field was in dire need of reform. He found quackery to be indulged by the College of Physicians, “since professional practice chiefly consisted in giving a great many drugs…,” a phenomenon he understands as economically motivated; “…the public inferred that it might be better off with more drugs still, if they could only be got cheaply, and hence swallowed large cubic measures of physic prescribed by unscrupulous ignorance which had taken no degrees.” Lydgate understood medical reform as based around and shaped by statistics, and he would be a unit that, when it became obvious how much more logical and effective his medical philosophies were, would disseminate a more scientific, rational basis for his profession. He would be a medical messiah, converting the ignorant but eager-to-learn populace to a more enlightened medicine, and he would ambitiously begin his journey in a medical backwater — provinciality.

He planned, after concluding his Parisian studies, to “settle in some provincial town as a general practitioner, and resist the irrational severance between medical and surgical knowledge in the interest of his own scientific pursuits, as well as of the general advance: he would keep away from the range of London intrigues, jealousies, and social truckling, and win celebrity, however slowly, as Jenner had done, by the independent value of his work.” (108) Setting himself up in strong juxtaposition against flashy quacks and physicians who touted their powerful, cure-all remedies, Lydgate would let his slow, determined, mathematical, and scientific methods build his reputation for him. People would see the folly in whimsical, drug-based medicine when they realized how ineffectual it was; they would no longer be duped when presented with flashy adverts for cure-all tonics, and they wouldn’t trust a doctor simply because he prescribed the most violent of purgatives. Like his heroes — C. A. Louis, Jenner, Bichat — “Lydgate was ambitious above all to contribute towards enlarging the scientific, rational basis of his profession.” (109) And he was doing so largely with the common good in mind, dotted, of course, with dreams of professional glory.

In addition to presenting what medical reformers hoped for in the mid-1800s, Eliot does an excellent job of portraying the public backlash to such radical, novel ideas. On several occasions, enemies or skeptics of Dr. Lydgate accuse him of unnecessary or unholy dissection. A Mrs Dollop expressed a belief that “Dr. Lydgate meant to let the people die in the Hospital, if not to poison them, for the sake of cutting them up without saying by your leave or with your leave…” A good doctor, she asserts, need not cut open and look inside his patient to know what was wrong. (323) Lydgate’s hesitancy to prescribe medication made many of his patients feel as though he was not performing his duties as a doctor; they were accustomed to being prescribed drugs. How were they expected to get better with none? Were they getting their money’s worth? “…[O]nly a little while before, they [Lydgate’s skeptics] might have counted on having the law on their side against a man who without calling himself a London-made M.D. dared to ask for pay except as a charge on drugs.” (325) In a particularly telling passage in which Lydgate explains to Mr. Mawmsey, a grocer, why he does not prescribe much medicine, the public’s aversion to the idea is made more explicitly manifest;

“For years he [Mr. Mawmsey] had been paying bills with strictly-made items, so that for every half-crown and eighteenpence he was certain something measurable was delivered. He had done this with satisfaction, including it among his responsibilities as a husband and father, and regarding a longer bill than usual as a dignity worth mentioning. Moreover, in addition to the massive benefit of the drugs to ‘self and family,’ he had enjoyed the pleasure of forming an acute judgement as to their immediate effects, so as to give an intelligent statement for the guidance of Mr. Gambit — a practitioner just a little lower in status…” (325)

Not prescribing his patients medicine took the power of opinion and choice from them, and it made them feel stupid for wanting it. The result was defensiveness and aversion; Lydgate’s “logical,” mathematically-based arguments meant nothing to these people, who largely lived their lives by the personal experiences to which they were privy. Lydgate’s imported, academic arguments lay far outside their day-to-day understanding of their world and, more specifically, the workings of their own (and their loved one’s) bodies — they were unintelligible. That is not to say that this vernacular audience was incapable of understanding; far from it, had it been explained to them. But many found no fault with their current doctors’ methods and the agency they enjoyed in the doctor-patient relationship, and they resented intrusion into that trusted dynamic, particularly by someone espousing foreign, abstract theories.

Country doctors already practicing in Middlemarch expressed other, inter-professional anxieties, which often play out between old and new members of a changing order. They harbored prejudices against “a man who had not been to either of the English universities… but came with a libellous pretension to experience in Edinburgh and Paris…” (135), and they found his methods particularly offensive. “It was clear that Lydgate, by not dispensing drugs, intended to cast imputations on his equals.” By setting himself apart in training and practice, Lydgate was isolating and belittling his fellow physicians — he was a threat to their medical authority, and as such, he suffers many ill-founded and assumption-ridden denunciations (and a hell of a lot of negative gossip) throughout the story from his rivals. Thus, Eliot contends with the changing medical field and the popular backlash it elicited — a very useful piece of socio-medical commentary for the nineteenth century medical historian indeed!

Another theme that I found interesting in Middlemarch was that of the role of women. Two main females stuck out to me — Dorothea Brook and Rosamond Vincy. They were foils of one another, and one was clearly what Eliot would have perceived ideal femininity to consist of. Dorothea (amusingly called “Dodo” by her sister, Cecilia) was raised by her uncle and had very firm, religiously-informed ideas about what she wanted from life and how she would carry herself through it. She was always thinking about others before herself, finding ways she could make herself useful to them. Her mind was a sharp one, and she was determined to use it for the common good — or, more immediately, for the good of her husband. She marries an older clergyman, intoxicated with the idea that she would help him to complete his meticulously researched and brilliant magnum opus. After they marry, however, she discovers that his intellectual abilities are lackluster, and his insecurities about them prove a barrier to his allowing her to help him in any meaningful way. She spends a lot of time fully accepting her new position but nonetheless does her best to adapt to her new life and its relative purposelessness. Mercifully, her elderly husband’s fragile nerves lead to his death rather early on in the book. Her logical outlook and altruistic nature render her a perfect supporting character and help her to keep a clear purpose in sight, even if it isn’t the one she initially set up for herself. She is adaptable, sensitive but not over-emotional, sensible, nurturing, and has just the right about of independent flare — not enough to make her disobedient, but enough for her to harbor her own thoughts and impressions, which she shares openly and honestly. She instigates communication between characters who are otherwise unable to come to terms with one another throughout the story, which is facilitated by her constant desire to maintain harmony amongst her friends and neighbors.

Starkly contrasted with Dorothea’s selfless desire to mold herself in a way most helpful to those that surround her, Rosamond Vincy’s perspective is smaller and more self-centered. Her role as a woman is to be supportive, but she directly contradicts her husband’s wishes on multiple occasions, going so far as to foil his plans for relocating to a smaller house without his knowledge. She was raised in the wealthy and well-thought of Vincy family, and spoiled from a young age, is ill-equipped to deal with the change in lifestyle that will accompany marriage to a physician-scientist. Unlike Dorothea, who adapted her lifestyle and purpose to support her husband’s, Rosamond fails to see the value in Dr. Lydgate’s intellectual pursuits and wonders why he doesn’t go into a more lucrative facet of medical practice in order to better finance her extravagances. The couple spend a good portion of the second half of the book at odds with one another, but the good doctor takes his duties as a husband more seriously than those of a scientist in the end; he sacrifices his research to support his self-centered wife.

By foiling Rosamond with Dorothea, Eliot presents two different versions of womanhood. Dorothea supports her husband, submitting her mind and enlisting its genius in the wholehearted pursuit of making her husband (both of them) successful. Her second husband is quite successful, and Eliot makes it clear that this is largely a result of the support he receives from his love interest and later wife. Even during the first half of the book when he is hopeless — Dorothea is married to his benefactor and then forbidden to marry him legally — his desire for her positive opinion drives him to achieve. Rosamond, on the other hand, uses her feminine wiles to seduce the young, well-meaning doctor, full of potential as a scientist. After marrying him, she perverts his utilitarian goals, insisting instead that he support her needlessly expensive lifestyle. Instead of encouraging him to do what he loves for the betterment of all, Rosamond insists that he modify his purpose to her own, selfish ones.

Thus, the willful, unyielding woman led to the intellectual death of the noble, utilitarian scientist. I wonder if there isn’t some commentary here on the role that women should play in science — supporters of the real movers and shakers, but certainly not active participants.


Science of the Marginalized: Women in the Age of Scientific Authority

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have witnessed a transformation in the status of scientific authority. With authority comes power, and with power comes the ability to dictate what is inside the realm of value and acceptability and what lies outside of that constructed space. When scientific disciplines and the respected members of those disciplines began to gain cohesion and recognizable authority, they began to make distinctions between what and who was and was not a part of their research programs and acceptable practices. Members of the scientific community especially susceptible to exclusion were (and are) those who had historically been viewed as outsiders — the most studied groups being women and people of color.[1] In this essay, I will examine how this systematic marginalization at various points in science’s ascension to greater and greater political, cultural, and intellectual authority has changed the way that women have practiced science, paying special attention to how the subjects of study and questions asked by female scientists are centered around different issues than their male colleagues. A similar study on African American science would be equally valuable but would extend the breadth of this essay beyond what I can reasonably discuss.

Maria Mitchell’s successful career as an astronomer spanned the middle third of the nineteenth century and provides an excellent point of departure. Born in 1818, her training and early work took place in the context of a scientific community still quite fragmented; the big names that would contribute to science’s nineteenth century prestige — Charles Darwin, James Clark Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur — were a development of mid-century. As her biographer Renée Bergland argues, Mitchell established herself as a scientist at a time when “studying science was ‘womanly,’ safely outside the potentially dangerous ideological realms of law or history or theology.”[2]

Lack of ideological authority placed science in a space that, at the time, was acceptable for females to interact within, and Mitchell’s science reflected her acceptance into the community. Like her male colleagues, she scanned the night sky for comets and made her entrance into the astronomical discourse with her discovery of one in 1847.[3] She was given credit for it and felt that she could become “a woman scientist… who could chart out her own course of research,” unlike her heroine Caroline Herschel who constantly diverted credit to her brother.[4] She acquired a job as the computer of Venus and published her astronomical work in various journals.[5] Mitchell was thus a scientist in her own rite, asking her own questions that reflected her relatively secure position within the discipline of astronomy. She needed neither to justify her participation in knowledge-production nor rely on a man’s help to solidify her position in the community.

Major changes were soon to alter the situation for women in science, however. Around the 1860s, America was professionalizing on many fronts, and science too felt this pull. With their newfound authority, professional scientists began to relocate the practice of science to the university — an institution from which women were usually excluded.[6] They also began to construct a view of the scientist that was uniquely male in order to further assert their professional authority. Women practitioners, they thought, would weaken their professional image.[7] Authority, institutionalization, and increased disciplinary cohesion (brought on by advances in theory and methodology) thus gave a particular class of scientist — advantaged by their social and economic position — the power to create spaces of exclusion that left whole sections of the community outside of scientific discourse. This would have profound implications for female scientists and their work in the twentieth century.

One such scientist was Helen Thompson Woolley. Born in 1874, she would face a far different scientific environment than Maria Mitchell. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago before beginning her research on sex differences; her thesis “compared the performance of 25 men and 25 women on motor, sensory and intellectual tests,” and her subsequent research and reviews centered on the same issues surrounding gender differentials in mental capacities.[8] Her frustration with contemporary scholarship on sex differences is evident in Psychological Literature: A Review of the Recent Literature on the Psychology of Sex, where she reviews recent work and, in a powerful and convincing conclusion, repudiates scientifically many of the arguments made by male scientists for why females do not belong in their profession. “There is perhaps no field aspiring to be scientific where flagrant personal bias, logic martyred in the cause of supporting prejudice, unfounded assertions, and even sentimental rot and drivel, have run riot to such an extent as here,” she states in a particularly ardent passage.

Woolley was fighting against the current that was sweeping many of her female colleagues out of science and into domesticity, and her research reflects her tenuous position. She chose to pursue issues related to her gender’s capacity to reason, and by extent to participate in knowledge-creation. Instead of engaging with other lines of inquiry in her field at the time, Woolley chose to hone in on one in which she had a vested interest; the scientific community’s consensus on whether females were intellectually on par with men would have a direct effect on Woolley’s ability to assert her own authority within her discipline. Therefore, because of the authoritative exclusion of her gender from science, Woolley’s research took on a very particular identity — one connected to her identification as a marginalized professional scientist and one based on legitimizing her participation in scientific discourse.

We have now seen how two female scientists’ work differed before and after the marked rise of scientific authority. Maria Mitchell pursued her own interests, relatively unaffected by her role as a female scientist. Helen Thompson Woolley, on the other hand, pursued a research program that attempted to authorize her participation in science; her identity as a woman in science played a central role in her research interests. As the twentieth century wore on, the situation for women in science improved only marginally. Two more scientists’ work will now elucidate how scientific authority has continued to marginalize women and thus inform their research agendas.

Margaret W. Conkey and Janet D. Spector founded a new field in archaeology — the archeology of gender — in 1984 with a groundbreaking article. In it, they highlighted the propensity for archeologists to make gendered assumptions about past populations. Conkey and Spector found that archeologists maintained gender biases when interpreting symbolism and explaining divisions of labor and social hierarchies, and their solution was to begin “a systematic program of feminist research on questions about women and gender.”[9] While it took seven years for anyone to act on their criticism, conferences began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Alison Wylie links the increasing interest in feminist archeology to “a parallel, and, in most areas, antecedent interest in questions about the roles, status, and contributions of women in archeology.”[10]
In this late twentieth century scenario, female archeologists drew attention to the gender biases rampant in their field. This kind of research was different from Helen Woolley’s in that it did not attempt to legitimize the female in general as a potential authority within a discipline; while female archeologists still suffer from unequal treatment in academia, they had at least affirmed their right to be there (more or less) by the 1980s. Conkey and Spector did, however, wage war against the gender biases still inherent in archeological analytical techniques, pointing out that contemporary methodologies were problematic. Perhaps they pursued these research interests because, as women within a scientific framework that was still masculinized in method, they remained outsiders. The authority of male archeologists, so ingrained in the profession, was still implicit in the way that archeology is practiced. While the role of women in science has improved overall, the barriers to equitably assigned intellectual value have remained strong, though often implicit.

Thus, while scientific authority has come with many benefits, it has also provided the impetus for marginalizing some with effects on the kinds of research they conduct. While I by no means am attempting to make the deterministic argument that all women in science have conducted gender-influenced research — that would be over-simplistic — I am, however, asserting that scientists’ work is profoundly impacted by the socio-scientific environment in which they practice, and the marginalization that has resulted from centralized scientific authority has had implications for some women’s work. I think this idea could be further researched and expanded to include other groups on the fringes; perhaps a comparison of the work produced by scientists occupying different positions in the institutional hierarchy would prove fruitful. In any case, as we have seen, different levels of authority from various time periods have produced distinct research agendas. For women scientists, mounting scientific authority has not always resulted in their work being taken more seriously, and it has left a distinctive mark on their research.

[1] By studied, I mean in the discipline of the history of science. These are two obvious examples, but the list goes on and on: those with disabilities, with alternative religious orientations (even as science’s power was eclipsing that of religion), homosexuals (i.e., Alan Turing), foreigners (some more threatening than others), etc.

[2] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), xvi.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Ibid, 114.

[5] Ibid, 155.

[6]Ibid, 156-157.

[7] Renée Bergland, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science, 174.

[8] Katharine S. Milar, “An Historical View of Some Early Women Psychologists and the Psychology of Women,” Classics in the History of Psychology Special Collections, accessed November 18, 2016,

[9] Alison Wylie, “Doing Social Science as a Feminist: The Engendering of Archaeology,” in Feminism in Twentieth-Century Science, Technology and Medicine, eds. Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck, and Londa Schiebinger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 24.

[10] Ibid, 25.