Current Research, Service and Appointments
You might say my research takes a “hands on approach.” (That’s me with my hands on a jar of arsenic from the Dittrick’s forensics and toxicology archive.) Most of my work revolves around researching and writing books, and then, on occasion, donning my bowler hat and doctor’s coat for public lectures. My research includes the science behind steampunk, the cultural history of death, forensic technology at the turn of the 20th century, reproduction and birth in the 18th and 19th century…and vampires (it’s a long story). I also write fiction, because why not? Read more about my publications here or visit my fiction page.
Upcoming or Ongoing Projects:
THE SCIENCE OF STEAMPUNK
The gear turns, the whistle blows, the sails expand with an electro-mechanical whirring. A behemoth rises into view, a retro-futurist Zeppelin wrapped in gold bands and shimmering with halos of steam-powered imaginings. Manning the helm and wearing a fetching pair of tinted goggles is the pseudo-Victorian hero, leather top hat jauntily tipping to the side as he raises a jewel-headed cane (also, most likely, a sword or pistol in disguise). Welcome to the world of steampunk, the science-fiction of Victoriana, strangely balanced between a 19th century that never was and a future that probably never will be. It’s the stuff of dreams, of nostalgia, of alternate pasts and futures that entice with the suave of James Bond and the savvy of Sherlock Holmes. And, of course, it’s fiction, not fact.
Or is it?
What if the unusual collection of gadgetry so often depicted—from the recent reboot of Sherlock Holmes as a steampunk-flavored Robert Downey Jr. to the many novels and graphic novels from Jules Verne onward—were based in the reality of scientific innovation? The answer may surprise. Goggles, lenses, specialty glasses, steam-powered engines, boiling test tubes, experiments and experimental gear make up the eclectic tool kit of some unlikely “heroes” of history. They served no secret societies and fought no super-villains (alien or otherwise), but they did solve cases, stop diseases, and take enormous risks. Meet the scientists, medical doctors, philanthropists, and curious and intrepid souls who pushed new technology to its limits before the turn of the 20th century. This is the science behind steampunk.
CULTURE, MEDICINE, AND PSYCHIATRY
I have been the managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, an international journal of cross-cultural health research, since June 2007. In the past five years, the journal has expanded to include illness narratives, cultural case studies and more—resulting in our present #1 ranking. The journal has expanded to include diverse categories, such as illness narratives, cultural case studies, and medical history. The first of our medical humanities special sections is Trauma, Disability and Embodied Discourse through Cross-cultural Narrative Modes, anticipated publication date of December 2013.
Birthing the Monster of Tomorrow
Monsters continue to fascinate us—as well as to plague and haunt our imaginations. The psychic landscape is peopled with them; the social fabric is woven of them. This persistent, paradoxical repulsion and fascination with monsters and the monstrous begins, however, with causation. From early works like those of sixteenth-century surgeon Ambroise Paré (whose own collection gathered case histories from earlier centuries yet) to our latter day conceptions, we have been concerned above all with monstrous origins. From whence do monsters come? What is their genesis—and more importantly—their reproductive potential? With the “birth” of the monster comes a particular anxiety about its self-replication, generally through perceived “unnatural” means. The link between the monstrous and fears of reproduction are present from early modern narratives through nineteenth-century fears of degeneration, and into our contemporary fascination with apocalyptic zombie films, epidemics, trans-species generation and colonization. While the incarnation of the monster manifests through different vehicles across these periods, it is clear that, regardless of its form, anxiety is rooted in concerns over its fecundity—its ability to infect, to absorb, to replicate.
This edited collection (Cambrian Press 2014) addresses the persistent paradoxical repulsion and fascination with monsters and the monstrous, their genesis, and their reproductive potential across different time periods and cultural contexts. My own contribution concerns vampires and VD;“’Children of the Night’: Dracula, Degeneration and Syphilitic Birth.” I was interviewed about this project by the Wellcome-Trust funded Sick City Project for Sick City Talks: http://sickcityproject.wordpress.com.
Death’s Summer Coat
Rituals are human events. While the word frequently calls up imagery from religious practice, ritual refers to behaviors—those actions performed with intention and significance. They may be as simple as a handshake, or as complex as a rite of passage, but they stand for so much more. Rituals are the fabric of our cultural identities.
In our present age, our approach to death has changed; rituals have been abandoned, but little has replaced them. We are left without sufficient means to grieve, sadness is medicated, and death is taboo. This book asks how this shift occurred, but more importantly, it provides some answers.
As medicine successfully eradicated pandemics in the West and so changed its focus from fighting illness to preserving and prolonging life, death was removed from our human story. Once expected at every corner and so prepared for, it has becomes a tragic surprise ending. At the same time, new medical and scientific understanding changed perspectives about religion. Epidemics were not acts of God; they were problems to be solved by science. Soon, death was viewed the same way. It would not be resolved by contemplating the afterlife, but by cultivating the myth of (medicalized) eternal life. When the West stepped away from religious practice, it also stepped away from ritual, and so one of the most important threads of our human history was cut. Without the protecting garment of ritual, we lost an important aspect of grief and healing, and so stand naked before the reality of death, more vulnerable than ever before—so vulnerable, in fact, that we seek to avoid its very name. No one speaks of death, because we need rituals in order to face it and move on.
A useful example—and one that appears in the work—comes from trauma treatment. A battered women’s shelter could not get their patients to move beyond the trauma they had experienced. Despite extensive counseling, the women frequently found themselves returning to the abuse they had once escaped. Confounded and frustrated, the shelter psychologists decided to incorporate Native American rites of passage into therapy. Women participated in several ceremonies, one of which had them writing down their weaknesses, their “old selves” and then drop them into a swift-flowing river. With this and other rituals, the women let their trauma go, and one by one they were able to move on with their lives. The women did not believe in the Great Spirit or any of the other aspects of the indigenous worldview, but they did not have to. The rituals themselves had power to heal.
It is often easier to understand concepts like these by looking outward. I start with the rituals and death practices of other cultures (like the story above) and then the history of our own Western approach to death and dying. I then discuss the twin shifts of hospitalization and secularization that have left a ritual vacuum surrounding death. I interview palliative care givers and investigate alternatives to pharmaceutical treatment of grief—but throughout all, I focus on what we can learn from such practices, and how we can use this knowledge to improve our current predicament in the developed world.
This work is about “putting on” rituals, wearing them as the vestal garments often used in ceremony. Wrapped up in these, in death’s “summer coat,” we have power to approach our common end.