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Science and literature: a tale of two Dickens

BMJ 2018; 361 doi: (Published 16 May 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;361:k2169
  1. Alison Shepherd
  1. The BMJ

The name Charles Dickens is synonymous with Victorian literature; his epic, expansive tales of 19th century London and beyond cemented in the canon of English fiction. But few realise that he was also one of his era’s great scientific communicators.

Friends with Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Ada Lovelace, and Florence Nightingale, Dickens, according to a new exhibition, had a deep and influential interest in medicine and in the power of science to cure disease, clean the city, and clear the atmosphere.

Charles Dickens: Man of Science, which opens this month, draws on evidence from his novels, journalism, and letters to show how he used his position at the heart of Victorian society to spread scientific knowledge.

Among the exhibits is a Dickens obituary from The BMJ in 1870, which includes the observation, “What a gain it would have been to physic if one so keen to observe and facile to describe had devoted his powers to the medical art.”

Among the observations that gave Dickens his place in modern medicine is his description in The Pickwick Papers of Joe, “the wonderful Fat Boy” who “goes on errands fast asleep and snores as he waits at table.” Such was the accuracy of his description that, in 1956, more than 120 years after the novel was published, scientists in the American Journal of Medicine named “Pickwickian syndrome” or obesity hypoventilation syndrome. Later scientists would also cite Fat Boy when describing sleep apnoea in obese patients.

The exhibition runs from 24 May to 11 November at the Dickens Museum, 48 Doughty Street, London.

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