Medical Ethics in Victorian Fiction


Correspondence: Department of English, Saint Louis University, 3800 Lindell Blvd. Adorjan Hall 127, St. Louis, MO 63108, USA. Email:


Studies on 19th-century British literature have, in the last decade, become increasingly aware of the literary representations of medicine in general and medical ethics in particular. The Romantic and Victorian periods are the beginning of the professionalization of both science and medicine; it is important, therefore, to study the ways in which the literature of those periods both reflected and informed emerging public debates on medical ethics. Medicine, during Victoria's reign, became standardized, professionalized, and, eventually, specialized. Medical research and the medical technology made tremendous advancements including germ theory and the stethoscope. Given the amount of progress made during the period, Victorian studies contributing to medical humanities can and should further research how Victorian literature shaped contemporary conceptions of medical ethics. Issues of patient privacy that we recognize today did not exist for Victorian medical professionals, and, therefore, the study of ethical implementation of medical research is a more productive line of inquiry for Victorian studies. While Gothic fiction like Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) are fruitful starting points for this continuance, it is also crucial to consider issues of medical ethics as they appear in other novel genres of the same period. Lesser-studied works – including Eliot's The Lifted Veil (1859), Charles Dicken's “A Curious Dance Round a Curious Tree” (1852), Charles Reade's Hard Cash (1870), Anthony Trollope's The Fixed Period (1882), and Mary Augusta Ward's Marcella (1894) – warrant further scholarly consideration of their engagement with medical ethics.