Dissertations – The Making and Travelling of Knowledge

Maria Böhmer: “The Making and Travelling of Knowledge. A Biography of a Medical Case History in Nineteenth-Century Europe”

The dissertation is a close study of a single medical case history published by an Italian Professor of Surgery in 1806 which tells the story of a spectacular attempt at public self-crucifixion in Venice: Cesare Ruggieri’s Storia della crocifissione di Mattio Lovat da se stesso eseguita. Mattio Lovat came to Venice at the beginning of the 19th century from the north-Italian mountains to work there as a shoemaker. Obsessed with the idea of crucifying himself, he tried twice to realize this idea in public, the second attempt leading to his being placed under the care of the physician Cesare Ruggieri in the Venetian Clinical School. After his physical recovery, Lovat was declared insane and was hospitalized at the Venetian mental asylum on the island of San Servolo, where he died several months later.

The frontpage of the English translation of Ruggieri’s Storia della Crocifissione which appeared in 1814 in the Pamphleteer. Respectfully dedicated to both houses of Parliament, Vol. 3, no. IV (London: A.J. Valpy: Chancery Lane, March 1814), pp. 361-375.

Shortly afterwards, Ruggieri published the Storia della crocifissione in which he related the biography of his patient, suggesting that Lovat’s mental condition was related to the fact that he suffered from pellagra, at that time a wide-spread but little-understood disease in northern Italy: a consequence of the severe malnutrition produced by a staple diet of maize, pellagra caused general physical weakness, skin eruption and could also induce mental illness. Ruggieri himself ensured that the Storia della crocifissione appeared in different editions and translations during the following decades. As a result, the case became widely known across Europe, and was discussed in professional and lay discourses in Germany, France, England and Italy throughout the 19th century. It has thus become well known to this day as an early case of 19th-century psychiatry.

By way of situating Ruggieri’s case history in its multiple social, scientific and cultural contexts, the dissertation examines the great appeal the case had for a medical but also a broader lay public in 19th-century Europe: it reconstructs the “making” of the case in the local context of Venice and follows in detail the ways in which the case narrative circulated in between and within new contexts. By analysing the multiple transformations Ruggieri’s case history underwent when transcending geographical, linguistic and, above all, cultural and disciplinary boundaries, the dissertation sheds light on such developments as the formation of specialist disciplines, the emergence of a new media scene and a growing readership, the popularisation of science as well as new approaches to religious questions in 19th-century Europe. In reading the medical case history as an “epistemic genre” (Gianna Pomata), the study is informed by recent approaches in the history of science, medicine and psychiatry. In particular, it draws on recent scholarship on the history of the medical case history and offers a new approach to this field: it presents for the first time a “biography” of a singular medical case history in order to investigate the transnational circulation of medical case literature in 19th-century European culture.

Maria Böhmer (Ph.D.) is a post-doc at the Center for Medical Humanities, History of Medicine, University of Zurich. The dissertation was defended at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy in June 2013. She is currently preparing a book manuscript on the same topic.

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