Beyond ‘Great Men’ Histories: Abdominal Surgery, Risk and Failure in Victorian Britain

  • Laura Neff (Speaker)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


A Life as a Lens: Using Individuals in Wider Historical Research Conference hosted at the University of Roehampton

‘Great Men’ narratives have famously plagued early scholarship in the history of medicine. These early histories portrayed medical men such as James Y. Simpson, Joseph Lister and Robert Lawson Tait only on their individual surgical abilities and notable careers. Through a ‘lens’ previous historians constructed ‘Great Men’ outside their professional organizations and networks. The history of surgery, and in particular abdominal surgery, is part of a larger social history of the Victorian period.Abdominal surgeons revealed the mysterious structure and functions of the abdominal cavity through new surgical skills, which by the 1890s, had solidified into a respectable medical practice. No longer in the ‘dark’, these surgeons expressed their surgical skills and systems through operations, post-operative results, and standardization of case notes. This loosely connected network of surgeons established surgery as a skillful, systematic and standard branch of medicine. Outside the single narrative of one man, this paper will explore the multiple ways in which ‘Great Men’ histories were used to further past understandings of medical discoveries and competing ‘bodies of knowledge’ in the Victorian period. Historians of medicine, who wrote through the lens of ‘Great Men’, revealed more about themselves and their construction of medical progress than they do about the past.
Period12 Sept 2014
Event typeOther


  • Biographies
  • Historical Lens
  • History of Medicine