Lorenzo Servitje is associate professor of literature and medicine, with a dual appointment in the Department of English and the Health, Medicine, and Society program at Lehigh University which he currently directs. He holds a PhD in English from the University of California Riverside and a Master in Public Health at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. His monograph Medicine Is War: The Martial Metaphor in Victorian Literature and Culture, (SUNY University Press 2021) traces the metaphorical militarization of medicine in the nineteenth century. He is an affiliated researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s s Antimicrobials in Society cluster. His current book project, The Science and Fiction of Antibiosis examines the history and culture of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance. Excerpts of Antibiosis have appeared in Osiris, the annual journal for the History of Science Society, and in The Palgrave Handbook of Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Literature and Science. His most recent short form publication from the project examines the use of gothic literary allusion in biomedical publications related to virulence and was published in Antibiotics. Presently, he is collaborating on a piece for BMJ Global Health with Prof. Clare Chandler on the history of Antimicrobial Stewardship.
Which nineteenth-century historical event has been most influential for your work and for your thinking about the nineteenth century, and why?
Perhaps the 1817 cholera pandemic, because it drew my attention to how imperialism was a determinant for epidemic/ pandemic spread, and how national and racial ideologies shaped the medical epistemology that constructed disease (for example, the difference between “Asiatic blue cholera (Indian cholera) and cholera morbus (English cholera)). The 1817 pandemic was particularly important to my work because it did not make its way to England, and consequently reinforced imagined notions of what the disease was, where it traveled, and what kind of peoples/places it can “visit”/ “invade.” It also was pivotal for me in terms of seeing the relationship between military medicine and imperialism, and how those shaped the metaphors used to think, know, and study infectious disease.
I am reminded of the initial characterization of the Plague in Shelley’s Last Man: “It is of old a native of the East, sister of the tornado, the earthquake, and the simoon. Child of the sun, and nursling of the tropics, it would expire in these climes. It drinks the dark blood of the inhabitant of the south, but it never feasts on the pale-faced Celt. If perchance some stricken Asiatic come among us, plague dies with him, uncommunicated and innoxious.”
What is most difficult, and what is easiest about teaching undergraduates about the nineteenth century?
Since I work less with English majors and more with health, medicine, and society majors, the length of c19 fiction is sometimes a hurdle. That and the complaint that “It’s just a bunch of going over to people’s houses and marriage things.”
But more so: getting them past thinking, “how could they possibly have thought bad air/smells causes disease” or “why did they not see germ theory.”
The easiest thing is helping students identify sexism in c19 literature and culture and mapping its existence and continued afterlife today in similar or different forms.
If you were an artist in the nineteenth century, what would your medium be? And what or who would inspire you?
Painting, even though I’m terribly untalented. I would be inspired by anything sublime– microbial world, the ocean (deep ocean), probably a la Turner.
Which nineteenth-century dish, cocktail, or drink have you tried to recreate, and why? What was the occasion? Was it delicious, awful, or something else entirely?
I have not tried to do this. I am trying to grow Penicillium from the soil in my yard. Does this count? It will undoubtedly taste awful, but I won’t try it.
What form of nineteenth-century transportation would you most like to experience, and why?
Walking in crowds in the streets. I guess I’d like to be a less creepy version of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.”
If you could hold any job or work in any profession in the nineteenth century, what would it be, and why?
I would love to have been an early bacteriologist or physiologist, like John Burdon-Sanderson. That or a razor smith.
If you could hold any political office or sit on any throne in the nineteenth century, which would it be, and why?
John Simon, first Chief Medical Officer of Healh (Cf. Jacob Steere-William’s The Filth Disease)
Which nineteenth-century smell, odor, or aroma would you most like to experience, and why?
I suppose “Ether Frolics” carry some appeal or, perhaps a surprise chloroforming (from an experienced practitioner like John Snow, jumping out from a street corner like Aston Kutcher yelling, “Just Got Punk’D!” rather than an assailant as oft scandalized in Chloroform crimes reported in the periodicals. For an example of this anxiety, see Ashlee Simon’s chapter “Scanderlous Stupor”).