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The Birkbeck Pain Project

(Studies in the History and Science of Trauma)

The Birkbeck Pain Project is now part of the Birkbeck Trauma Project.


The experience of pain is both highly subjective and social, arising out of culturally-governed interactions, embodied consciousness and theories of the body and mind circulating within any particular period.

The Birkbeck Pain Project has evolved from a three-year project funded by the Wellcome Trust. We set out to advance our understanding between corporeality and culture by exploring the complex biomedical, neurological, psychological, cognitive, and sensory aspects of ‘the body in pain’.

Our approach is both historical (1760s to the present) and transcultural. We are analysing narratives of pain from diverse communities, including those whose voices were seldom heard. These include slave populations, prisoners, the poor, immigrant and religious groups, and children. In addition to understanding how people ‘without voices’ experienced and expressed pain in different cultural contexts, we are also interested in developing our understanding of clinical intersubjectivity between the patient and his or her physician and nurse.

We are drawing on manuscript sources primarily from institutions such as hospitals, prison and workhouse infirmaries, factories and schools in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the US and Australia. We also explore published and unpublished diaries, letters, reports, journals and newspapers, lecture notes, annals, necrologies, sermons, oral histories, fiction, autobiographies, film, sound recordings, cartoons, and art.

Our research findings have been disseminated through a series of papers and journal articles, four major conferences, and a two-day public event. A monograph by Joanna Bourke The Story of Pain. From Prayer to Painkillers was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

Fellows (click to see visiting fellows)

  • In addition to Dr Jeremy Davies (Fellow), three Visiting Fellows joined us in 2012. They were
  • Daniel S. Goldberg, J.D., Ph.D is an assistant professor in the Department of Bioethics & Interdisciplinary Studies at the Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, U.S.  His historical research focuses on two topics in mid to late nineteenth-century America and Britain: the history of medical imaging, especially the history of early American roentgenology, and the history of pain without lesion. During the Visiting Fellowship, he worked on comparing the beliefs, attitudes and practices of leading British neurologists with those of their American counterparts. Details and podcasts from his public workshop 'History of Pain without Lesion in the mid to late Nineteenth Century' held in May 2012 can be found here.
  • Lynn Botelho, Ph.D is currently a Distinguished Faculty for Research and University Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a Life Fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. In May 2012, she was awarded a prestigious Fulbright-King's College London Scholar Award.  She used her Fellowship to research the physical pain of aching joints and the mental anguish of declining authority that often prompted the early modern England's ageing population to feel and call themselves 'old'.  She has given a series of public talks to groups of older people about ageing in the past.  Her fellowship culminated in a public conference 'Pain and Old Age: Three Centuries of Suffering in Silence?'. Details and podcasts can be found here.
  • Rob Boddice Ph.D, is a Research Fellow at the Languages of Emotion Cluster, Freie Universität, Berlin. His research has focused on the history of the human-animal relation, cruelty, callousness and anthropocentrism. He is currently working on institutional and social practices related to different concepts of compassion as sympathetic pain in late Victorian Britain. During his fellowship he conducted research on early Darwinist attempts to prescribe moral action through a natural-law understanding of the evolution of compassion. His public workshop was titled 'Pain as Emotion; Emotion as Pain: Perspectives from Modern History'. Details and podcasts can be found here.

Out this month...

The Story of Pain
Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain. From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford University Press, June 2014). Read more.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust

Etching in the crayon manner by
W. Herbert, c. 1770, after C. Le Brun.