"A Sad Inheritance of Misery": The Cultural Life of Hereditary Scrofula in Eighteenth-Century England

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Abstract

This essay argues that scrofula was one of several disorders, including gout, rickets, and venereal disease, that were ‘rebranded’ as hereditary in response to broader cultural changes that took place during the Restoration and eighteenth century in England. While the purposes of scrofula’s recategorisation were more political than medical, they resulted in this heretofore relatively obscure childhood ailment assuming a new prominence within both medical and popular discourses of the period. Scrofula became both emblem and proof of the links between sexual promiscuity, financial profligacy, and physiological degeneration, its symbolic status reinforced by the legal and moral language used to model processes of hereditary transmission. By likening the inheritance of scrofula to the inheritance of original sin—or, more commonly, to the inheritance of a ‘docked entail’ or damaged estate—eighteenth-century writers and artists not only made this non-inherited ailment into a sign of catastrophic hereditary decline; they also paved the way for scrofula to be identified as a disease of aristocratic vice, even though its association with crowded, unsanitary living conditions likely made it more common among the poor. By the same token, financial models of disease inheritance facilitated a bias toward paternal transmission, with scrofula often portrayed as passing, like a title or an estate, from father to son rather than from mother to daughter.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalMedical History
Volume68
Issue number1
Early online date15 Mar 2024
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Mar 2024

Keywords

  • England 1660–1800
  • scrofula
  • disease
  • heredity
  • literature
  • art
  • print culture

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