The History of Pain Without Lesion in the mid-late Nineteenth Century West


The Birkbeck Pain Project invites the submission of abstracts in connection with a public Workshop to be held on 19 May 2012 at The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, Birkbeck, University of London entitled “The History of Pain Without Lesion in the Mid-to-Late 19th c. West.” The Workshop is being organised by Visiting Fellow Daniel S. Goldberg, J.D., Ph.D (East Carolina University, U.S.A.).

Although much work in the history of medicine and science has touched on experiences of pain in the modern era, there is a paucity of scholarship specifically focused on prevailing attitudes, practices, and beliefs among either lay or professional therapeutic communities regarding pain itself in the 19th c. West. The Workshop is intended to help fill this gap by generating discussion and knowledge exchange on the mid-to-late 19th c. social, cultural, and medical status of what we might now refer to as chronic pain sufferers. Of course, given fluid nosologies during most of the 19th century, a variety of labels and complaints might refer to kinds of chronic nonmalignant pain, including but not limited to causalgia, neuralgia, neurasthenia, hysteria, railway spine, spinal irritation, spinal concussion, headache, dysmenorrhea, and pain without lesion. The last phrase has been selected as an umbrella term for convenience, but in the ambiguity and fluidity of terms for and conceptions of pain, 19th c. pain sufferers, healers, and families are not so different from current counterparts given that chronic pain defies categories, definitions, and sometimes even descriptions.

Themes & Topics:

Work on the history of pain without lesion in the mid-to-late 19th c. West implicates inquiries, among others, in the history of neurology and neuroscience, the history of objectivity, the history of the body, disability history, the history of railway medicine/surgery, and the history of pathological anatomy. Papers addressing the Workshop topic within these or other relevant domains are welcome.

Solely by way of example rather than limitation, possible paper topics might include (all in context of pain without lesion):

  • Attitudes, practices, and beliefs in early or nascent clinical neurology;
  • The role of changing conceptions and frameworks of objectivity;
  • The role of mind-body dualism, especially in a Victorian context;
  • The influence of specificity theory in cognitive neuroscience;
  • The effects of increasing emphasis on cerebral, nervous, and somatic localization;
  • The increasing significance of lesions that could be clinically correlated in discourses of pathological anatomy;
  • The effects of dominant structures of race, class, gender, and impairment in shaping attitudes, practices, and beliefs; and
  • How contests over railway spine reveal attitudes, practices, and beliefs.

Papers oriented around interdisciplinary approaches in the medical & health humanities are welcome so long as they primarily adopt a mid-to-late 19th c. focus for their analysis. The geographical focus of the Workshop is on Great Britain, Ireland, and the U.S., but papers addressing the Workshop themes in context of any Western region, nation, or community are welcome.


This Workshop aims to generate dialogue and knowledge exchange in an integrative, discussion-oriented format. To maximize the quality of the discussion and to facilitate meaningful feedback, each speaker will be required to provide drafts of their papers to participants in advance of the workshop. The Workshop will not include traditional paper panels. Rather, speakers will present as a conversant in tandem with another speaker on a unified theme, after which a chaired group discussion will proceed for the majority of the time allotted for the session. The hope is that this format stands a higher likelihood of generating integrated, meaningful, and sustained discourse on a variety of issues related to the 19th c. history of pain and the potential relevance of that history for contemporary problems in understanding and treating pain.


The Workshop is hosted by The Birkbeck Pain Project and will take place at The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. There is no fee to attend or register for the Workshop. Speakers are expected to assume the costs of their participation, although a limited number of small bursaries are available. Those wishing to be considered for a bursary should note as such and offer a brief explanation; preference will be given to current students and/or those most in need. To submit, please send an abstract (maximum 450 words) and a C.V. via email to the Birkbeck Pain Project ([email protected]) by 30 November 2011. Please note that Abstracts which are sent in after this deadline cannot be considered.

Questions and concerns regarding the Call may be directed to the Birkbeck Pain Project ([email protected]) and/or to Daniel S. Goldberg ([email protected]).

More information regarding The Birkbeck Pain Project is available on the Project website (