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The Case for Charles Dickens, the Science Communicator

A new exhibition dives into the Victorian novelist’s passion for science

Joe, the "fat boy" from the Pickwick Papers. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Charles Dickens had the uncanny ability to absorb the tiniest details of daily life and the mannerisms of people around Victorian London and present them on the page in literary Technicolor. In fact, Dicken’s eye for minutia even covered the science of the day, and in several characters and asides he explores fields like geology, medicine and paleontology. That’s why, reports Robin McKie at The Guardian, the Charles Dickens Museum is opening a new exhibition this month called Charles Dickens: Man of Science.

While devout Dickens fans may have picked up on Dickens’ keen interest in science, McKie explains that because the Victorian novelist’s writings are so associated with the plight of the poor, the sick, the homeless, the elderly, the overworked and the underpaid, scientific observations in his writings have, in fact, become obscured.

“For 150 years, it has been thought that Dickens was uninterested in or actually hostile to science,” Frankie Kubicki, curator at the museum, tells McKie. “That is a misunderstanding, and a travesty. He was one of the most influential scientific communicators of the Victorian age.”

Julian Hunt, emeritus professor at Gresham College, who has written considerably about Dickens’ relationship with science, affirms that Dickens was very much a student of the scientific advancements of his age. “His brilliant essay on 'a new ology' describes how a science moves from its first tentative steps to mature general concepts, when they are often transformed into other areas of science and human understanding - a very modern perspective,” Hunt explains in one 2015 lecture.

In another story at The Guardian, Hannah Devlin reports that Dickens’ descriptions of medical ailments in his writings are so precise they often predated the formal description of some diseases. His description of Joe, the “fat boy” who has trouble staying awake in the Pickwick Papers, was used by doctors in 1956 looking to find out why severely obese people can have trouble staying awake. The researchers originally named their findings after Dickens, calling the diagnosis “Pickwickian Syndrome.”

Examples of Dickens' scicom skills can be found throughout his texts. In 1848’s Dombey and Son, Mrs. Skewton loses the power to speak and becomes paralyzed on her right side. That observation anticipated the 1861 discovery by researcher Paul Broca that the speech center is located on the right side of the brain. “That hadn’t been observed in the medical literature at all by then – that speech loss and paralysis can occur together,” Adelene Buckland, an advisor to the exhibition from King’s College London, tells Devlin.

While Dickens wasn’t known to dabble in the sciences himself, he was also actively conversing with those who were. Devlin reports he corresponded with Michael Faraday, one of the early researchers of electromagnetism, traveled with chemist Jane Marcet, who wrote a series of books popularizing scientific concepts, wrote the obituary of the criminally overlooked paleontologist Mary Anning and read Dombey and Son to the mathematician and, by some reckoning, the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace, on her deathbed.

Dickens’ interest in science was not just academic in nature. In true Dickens fashion, he wanted to see how science could improve the human condition. As the Charles Dickens Museum writes, “for Dickens, science mattered when it transformed lives by curing disease or cleaning streets, or opening up new vistas of wonder in a humdrum world.”

Concerns like medical treatment, malnourishment, and sanitation were his scientific preoccupations. He wanted to demonstrate that these problems weren't due to moral failings or the corrupt character of individuals, but rather were products of a poorly designed society that had inadequate safeguards for its most vulnerable.

“He’s linking modern urban life and the social structure of the city with disease,” Buckland tells Devlin. “You don’t get disease just because you’re living a dissolute lifestyle, it’s because you’re living in a slum that’s been neglected. It’s a social responsibility.”

"Charles Dickens: Man of Science" runs from May 24 to November 11, 2018

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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