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The Surprising Intersection of Medicine and Literature

The old adage in literature is to "write what you know." I remember being a very tiny writer, maybe about nine-years old, 60 pounds, with 15 stuffed animals to my name, and thinking that all my stories had to describe a 60-pound female protagonist who set out to save her fourth grade class with the help of her magical stuffed animal hoard. Needless to say, I took literature... literally.

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It's embarrassing to admit that I was older than I consider reasonable when the concept of "writing what I knew" finally clicked. For those who don't know, my background is in the medical field. That's not to say I always write about medical things, but I find it fascinating when medicine and art intersect. For example, I'm drawn in when horror movies metaphorize gripping anxiety or depression with features of psychosis and characterize it on the big screen as a monster or gaping hole or abnormal physical features.

As I was mulling over this week's post and thinking about this concept of the intersection of medicine and art, I noticed three books on my shelf that at first glance, have very little to do with each other. Sure, they're all from around the same time period, but each - Lewis Carroll's Alice stories, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper all have something unique in common: they all stem from an unlikely medical place. And, in the case of Carroll and Perkins Gilman, stemmed from the concept of "writing what they knew." This week, we're taking a glimpse into the fascinating world of the medical science that set the stage for three literary classics.

  1. Alice in Wonderland

Charles Lutwidge Dodson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll kept diaries that described his unfortunate tendency toward “bilious headaches,” or what would be described today as migraines.[1] Prior to his migraines, Carroll’s diaries outlined aura symptoms, or the migraine prodrome. Within the well-known and well-loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), and Through the Looking Glass… (1871), Alice is depicted as having many strange experiences, including falling down a rabbit hole, shrinking in size, growing large, depersonalization, and bodily acceleration.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

It is now hypothesized that Carroll’s migraines were linked to a medical syndrome now known as Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS).[1] AIWS has been described symptomatically to include parts of the body feeling larger (macrosomatognosia) or smaller (microsomatognosia), associated with visual hallucinations of objects appearing larger (macropsia) or smaller (micropsia). Other symptoms have been described with AIWS, including misperceptions of object placement, feelings of derealization/depersonalization, auditory or color-based hallucinations, and more. AIWS has also been linked to Epstein-Barr virus and seizures disorders, and depressive disorder, among others. If Carroll did, in fact, experience the symptoms described in his own books, then AIWS is one of the ultimate intersections between medicine and art, as it is the backdrop of Alice's adventures.

On a similar note, It was well-documented that Pablo Picasso experienced migraines, too.[1] Back to Carroll’s diaries - Carroll's visual aura’s were described as: “…a person with the right half of the face, shoulder, and hand erased…” Sounds like familiar Picasso art, doesn’t it?

2. Dracula

Perhaps Exeter, Rhode Island’s Mercy Brown wasn’t the direct inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but at the end of the 19th century, Brown played a large role in what we now know is heart of vampirism in the United States. In 1884, farmer George Brown lost his wife to consumption, the former name for tuberculosis. Symptoms of consumption included fatigue, night sweats, and coughing up mucous or blood. Once afflicted in the 1800s, survival rates were around 20 percent.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

After George Brown’s wife died, members of the Brown family began falling ill over and over. It was suspected that there was something sinister afoot. His son Edwin became ill, then his daughter, Mercy, died. With Edwin suffering, townsfolk told George Brown that it could be a deceased relative “draining the life force from the living relatives.” The Brown’s exhumed Mercy’s body during the cold of winter, and found her intact with blood still in her heart chambers, apparently confirming local supernatural fears. Her heart and liver were removed and burned before she was reburied. Edwin died two months later.

What actually happened? It was theorized that Mercy’s body was preserved the because she was buried in a freezing ground. Another theory involved potential inhalation of the ashes causing an inoculation effect on healthy individuals who breathed them in, thus providing some immunity against consumption. Nonetheless, creatures who sleep all day, drain the “lifeblood” of their victims, are perpetually pale, and feature blood on their lips make for decent vampires in fiction…

3. The Yellow Wallpaper

In 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her short story titled, The Yellow Wallpaper, in The New England Magazine. The story is a first-person account of a woman suffering from post-postpartum depression whose husband has confined her to an upstairs room in an attempt to control her “instability.” During the course of the character’s confinement, an unreliable narrative mechanism is used to gradually reveal the effect of her imprisonment. Gilman herself had suffered postpartum depression, and was prescribed bed rest with a ban on working, reading, writing, and art. She instead treated herself by writing The Yellow Wallpaper as a criticism of medicine at the time.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper

While these three examples are surely not the only three out there, they are the three that whispered from my book collection. A medically tenuous link, they surely didn't jump off the shelf. However, they have prompted me to think a little deeper into origin stories, and "the man [author] behind the curtain." (Although, that quote references Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and if we were to discuss stories that are political allegories, we'd need quite an extensive post, now wouldn't we?) Speaking of the author behind the story and medical links, I've recently finished reading Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, which has me thinking...

Anyway, there's no neat way to package this one into a tidy little conclusion, at least not one that I can see here. So, I'll end with a quote from Alice: "For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible." ...because isn't that, really, the way of medicine?

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  1. Mastria G, Mancini V, Viganò A, Di Piero V. Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: a clinical and pathophysiological review. Biomed Res Int 2016;8243145.

  2. All That’s Interesting. Why the Mercy Brown Case Remains One of History’s Craziest “Vampire” Incidents. Last updated 16 Oct 2019. Last accessed 22 Feb 2022.

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