The Production of Medicoethical Misconduct: Medical Ethics and Vivisection in Wilkie Collins’s Heart and Science

Article Summary by Thomas G. Cole II

Authors of popular fiction often question the world around them by telling stories that reflect their world. In so doing, these authors provide a necessary and sometimes powerful commentary on contemporary issues. This was no different for the popular fiction authors of the Victorian era. In this essay, I look at one of Wilkie Collins’s lesser-known books, Heart and Science (published in 1883) as well as articles from Victorian medical journals, including the BMJ. Perhaps not as widely known now as Charles Dickens, Collins, like Dickens, told stories about issues in Victorian England that he wanted to critique. In Heart and Science, Collins takes aim at a scientific practice that distressed him as well as many readers of his era: experimentation upon living animals or what is called ‘vivisection.’ Collins portrays two types of doctors: in simplest terms, good doctors and bad doctors. A noted anti-vivisectionist, Collins shows his own agenda through his antagonist, the immoral Dr. Nathan Benjulia who practices unethical medicine on a sympathetic character named Carmina. Clearly, Collins’s larger message is that medical doctors and scientists should not be experimenting on living animals. But what if these doctors also practiced on humans? Collins’s text piques his readers’ interest by suggesting as much. While treating Carmina, Benjulia simultaneously experiments on her and shows his disregard for her well-being and his lack of ethics. What, then, was the conversation about medical ethics in the 1880s? Of course, doctors agreed that they needed to practice ethically, but did they need an actual code of ethics? That answer is more complicated. Therefore, I include some BMJ articles that show Victorian doctors’ own biases for and against a call for medical ethics, which was an issue that remained hotly debated in the medical press for much of the nineteenth century.


Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.


Portrait photograph of Thomas G. Cole IIThomas G. Cole II earned a Ph.D. from the Department of English at the University of Florida and currently works at Southwest Tennessee Community College. His research primarily focuses on women’s and gender studies issues in medical humanities in Gothic and science fiction literature as well as popular culture. His work has appeared in Genders Journal and a complementary essay to “The production of medicoethical misconduct” will appear Victorian Popular Fictions in the spring issue of 2023.

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