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Symposium explores Pain and its Meanings

Sell-out event led by Birkbeck Pain Project

Professor Joanna Bourke

Symposium on Pain and its Meanings

Two thought-provoking days of cultural exploration and discussion of the meanings of pain were led by Professor Joanna Bourke, Dr Louise Hide, and Dr Carmen Mangion of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, at the Wellcome Collection in London on Friday 7–Saturday 8 December. The symposium, Pain and its Meanings, brought together a range of creative and scholarly minds to explore the relationship between body, mind and culture.

During the symposium Professor Bourke appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to explore how perceptions of pain have changed over time with presenter John Humphries and symposium contributor and NHS consultant Joanna Zakrzewska.

Joanna Bourke told the Today programme: “We seem to think today that pain is something universal, that we know what it is. But if you look back into the past, the way people dealt with pain is very different, and religion is at the heart of it. If you believe that pain is something given to us by God and is something you have to submit to, that purifies you – then it is a good thing. Your passivity and acceptance of that actually improves your fortunes.


“Even after anaesthetics were invented in the 1840s, people would refuse to have them because it was better to suffer in this world than in the next. Chloroform was very controversial, in part because it rendered the patient passive in front of doctors. This was why women in particular were really reluctant to accept anaesthetics.”

The sell-out symposium brought people together from the worlds of art, poetry, music, sociology, science, literature, history and politics. Talks covered the history of pain, disability activism, the mind/body problem in illness, the performance of pain, pain management in clinical contexts, and cruelty in fairy tales.

Professor Bourke added: “The symposium was a great success and we are very grateful to the Wellcome Collection for the opportunity to engage with a wider audience – more than a third of those attending were clinicians, and there were also a large number of pain sufferers present.”

Birkbeck Pain Project

The event was a collaboration between the Wellcome Collection, and the Birkbeck Pain Project.  Funded by a Wellcome Trust Medical History and Humanities Grant and based at Birkbeck’s  Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, the three-year Birkbeck Pain Project aims to further our understanding of the complex relationship between body, mind and culture by examining narratives of bodily pain produced from the mid-eighteenth century to the present day.

For a limited period, you can listen to the 8th December discussion on the Today programme via the BBC iPlayer here starting at timecode 1:17.

A special edition of the web journal “19.Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century” edited by the Birkbeck Pain Project team members can be downloaded here.

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