Digestive Health: Then and Now

By Manon Mathias

This round table discussion at the University of Glasgow on 3 November 2017 featured a series of interventions from researchers examining digestive health from the 1800s onwards. Presentations were given by Evelien Lemmens (QMUL), Manon Mathias (University of Glasgow), Ian Miller (Ulster University) and Matthew Smith (University of Strathclyde), and the session was chaired by Rhodri Hayward (QMUL). Scholars from a range of disciplines attended, including undergraduate and postgraduate students, early career researchers and established scholars. The event built on the successful Gut Feeling workshop held in Aberdeen in May 2017 and took the research project forward by:

1. making connections between the findings of the May event (which focused on the nineteenth century) and research on digestive health in later historical periods;

2. enhancing the network of researchers examining digestive health from cultural and historical perspectives; and

3. discussing the possibilities for public engagement in this area of research.

Key issues which emerged included the potentially contentious nature of the topic and the resulting need for sensitivity in knowledge exchange activities; the shifting relationship between digestion and identity from the nineteenth century to the present day (from a humoral model of the body which emphasized individual temperament  and constitution, to a microbiological approach which reveals the unique nature of each person’s microbiome); and the inherent instability of the digestive system as a historical concept. Inspired by the discussions, which repeatedly returned to the influence of twenty-first-century innovations in shaping our understanding of the digestive body and its boundaries, plans are now afoot for a workshop in Glasgow in May 2018 focusing on the gut-brain axis (CFP here).

The event was generously funded by the British Academy and the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Glasgow.