Recording Women’s Contributions to the History of Victorian Health and Wellness

Jessica Kirwan //

I recently interviewed Dr. Lesa Scholl, Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopedia of Victorian Women Writers, which is soon to be published by Palgrave Macmillan for their Major Reference Works portfolio. Dr. Scholl is Head of Kathleen Lumley College at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Readers of Synapsis will be interested to know that the Encyclopedia will include a section on women’s health and wellness. I am excited to participate as a contributor to the encyclopedia and contacted Dr. Scholl to learn more about the project. Below is a brief interview with Dr. Scholl.

Can you provide a brief description of the Encyclopedia of Victorian Women Writers?

This encyclopedia will be the first comprehensive encyclopedia of Victorian women writers, in which Associate Editor Dr. Emily Morris (St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, Canada) and I are taking an interdisciplinary scope to incorporate women’s contributions to intellectual history. The main target readership will be undergraduate and postgraduate students. It is designed to provide an entry point into the field of Victorian women writers.

The encyclopedia will be a living reference work of over one million words. Online publication will begin in the summer of 2019. A print edition will be released once the target word limit is reached. We will continue to add to the online edition as the field grows, with the opportunity for further print editions.

How and why were you approached to edit this new text?

I was approached by Ben Doyle, the Commissioning Editor at Palgrave, because of the interdisciplinary nature of my work, my experience in managing large editorial projects, and my international scholarly networks.

Palgrave has compiled prior series on British women writers. How does this new encyclopedia differ from those? Specifically, do you see this compendium filling a gap in the literature and history?

While there are broad encyclopedias of British Women Writers, and Modern British Writers, there was a gap in that the Victorian period was neglected. (Palgrave is also addressing the very underdeveloped area of Romantic Women Writers.) The development of an encyclopedia dedicated to Victorian Women Writers was crucial because it was a period so significant in terms of both intellectual history and the emancipation of women. This encyclopedia is further crucial in that, rather than focusing solely on “women writers” as literary figures, we are addressing (as much as possible) the full gamut of women’s contribution to intellectual history. The volumes cover an extraordinary range of scholarly and intellectual disciplines, from archaeology, engineering and economics through to politics, science and philosophy, with the vision of rewriting the history of women’s intellectual contribution through the written word.

 This encyclopedia will include a section on Health & Wellness for which the chapters cover topics such as medical techniques and medical reform as well as biographies of doctors and nurses. How did you narrow the scope of the section and choose the chapter topics?

Scholl book

The topics chosen are a starting point. Because the encyclopedia will have both digital and print editions, we have the flexibility to add entries as the project develops. The section on Health & Wellness began from research I have previously done through my edited collection, Medicine, Health and Being Human (Routledge 2018), and my current project that looks, in part, at the medical history of nutrition and fasting.

Owing to the gap in the literature and history regarding Victorian women’s health and health practitioners, do you think this encyclopedia will help elucidate misconceptions about either women’s practice of medicine or women’s health in the Victorian era?

It is definitely my purpose to bring to the fore previously neglected women who were public figures, but who have been erased from history throughout the twentieth century. This includes the women who were pioneers in the various health sciences. We are at a historical point where it is crucial that these scientists be taken seriously and reinserted into the understanding of the development of science and technology. It is also crucial specifically in terms of understanding women’s health and women’s bodies; there is still much work to be done to claim autonomy and authority for the female body in spite of the social, cultural and scientific progress that has been made, and also in light of current regressive attempts to restrict women’s voices and autonomy within the field of their own health and well-being.

Are you still seeking contributors? If so, specifically which topics are you soliciting?

At this stage, we have commissioned approximately half of the number of entries we will end up bringing together. Specifically in the section on Health and Wellness, we are still looking for contributors on some of the key medical texts written by women, and we would really like to include broader entries on the Physical Culture Movement; Nutrition and Dietetics; and Obstetrics. We are also still looking for a contributor to write the entry on Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. While we do have some specific entries that we have in mind, we also welcome scholars approaching us with ideas we may not have considered—particularly scholars who are working on less-known figures.

Those interested in contributing can contact me at lesa (dot) scholl (at) Adelaide (dot) edu (dot) au

In my own research on nineteenth century women’s health and medicine, like Dr. Scholl, I have found there to be a paucity of information on the contributions of Victorian women to the sciences, specifically medicine and its literature. I am eager to participate in this project with entries on Drs. Sophia Jex-Blake and Mary Scharlieb, pioneers in British women’s medicine who led interesting, complex lives that too few people know about. Other topics in the Health and Wellness section will include abortion, the Anatomy Act, disability, nursing, palaeontology, and maternity. Other writers discussed will include Drs. Frances Hoggan and Edith Pechey, Florence Nightingale, and Harriet Martineau.

I look forward to reading the published encyclopedia and hope this interview will inspire readers and writers of Synapsis who study nineteenth century women’s health to contact Dr. Scholl and join us in documenting the history of Victorian women’s intellectual contributions to health and medicine.

Featured Image: Sophia Jex-Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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