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Views & Reviews Medical Classics


BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 09 September 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b3664

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Dracula as a 'eugenic' fable

It is refreshing to see Dracula in the the 'medical classics
slot.'(1) Droch fhola is a gaelic phrase, pronounced 'Druck-ulla', which
literally means, ‘bad blood’.(2) The fear of hereditary madness runs
throughout the novel.

The vampire is staked through the heart, but also beheaded. Much of
the action in Dracula centres around a lunatic asylum, and even Dr Van
Helsing describes his wife's dementia, “Me with my poor wife dead to me,
but alive by Church’s law, though no wits, all gone. ” (3) The ‘science’
of phrenology was becoming the science of neuro-anatomy: the face was the
outward sign of the inner soul and the cranium an outward reflection of
the functional anatomy of the brain. The late Victorian belief in the
expression of mental disturbance through the physical body had many
literary parallels, which associated corruption of the body with
decreasing mental stability.(4)

Jonathan Harker, who on his journey to Transylvania notes that, ‘The
women looked pretty, except when you got near them,’ and that closer to
Dracula’s domain, ‘Goitre was painfully prevalent. ’ He also notes
Dracula’s receding temples, aquiline nose, and pointed ears. Van Helsing
adds that: “The criminal always works at one crime -that is the true
criminal who seems predesinate to crime, and who will of none other. He is
clever and cunning and resourceful; but he be not of man-stature as to
brain...The Count is criminal and of criminal type. ” (5)

The nervous system was the natural object through which the
Victorians explained racial hierarchy, criminality, class difference and
‘womanly virtue’, and all that it entailed. Most of the doctors involved
belonged to, and many more identified with, the affluent middle classes.
Their attitudes and their naturalism were a part of the culture of that
class. Taken at its extreme the novel could represent a medical profession
using new science to justify old prejudices, or simply the resistance of
an 18th century natural-historical ‘externalist’ approach in response to
the new clinical and scientific medicine. (6)

1. Twisselmann B, Medical classics: Dracula, BMJ 2009;339: 637

2. Belford B, p.19, Bram Stoker: A biography of the author of
Dracula, Weidenfield and Nicholson, London 1996

3. Stoker B, p.212, Dracula, Penguin (1992 Film tie-in edition),
Harmondsworth 1992

4. Walsh O, pp.236-7, Race religion and Irish insanity, Insanity
institutions and society (eds. Melling and Forsythe), Routledge, London

5. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, quoted from Pick D, p.171, Faces of
degeneration: a European disorder c.1848-c.1918, Cambridge University
Press, Cambridge 1989

6. Lawrence C, p 71, Medicine in the making of modern Britain 1700-
1920, Routledge, London 1989

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

16 September 2009
Andrew N Papanikitas
PhD Candidate
Centre for Biomedicine and Society, King's College London