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"Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness"

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Emily Hagens is co-curator of Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness and a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of MinnesotaAside from Masterpiece Theater and rare books, she studies 16th century Italian domestic medicine and vernacular print and manuscript culture.

Downton Abbey Poster.JPG

After a long wait, season 4 of Downton finally reappeared on PBS at the beginning of January! Lois Hendrickson and I, co-curators of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine's current exhibit Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, have been continuing our conversation about Downton and health. The war over, the family seemed quite settled again, however Matthew's fatal car crash at the end of season 3 foreshadowed significant shifts in the way the Abbey's characters would view the world and each other. The subtle medical concerns the characters continue to deal with reflect these newfound nuances. Unlike the bombastic and brutal problems of seasons one through three, The Great War, Spanish Influenza, and Sybil's eclampsia, this season has so far presented issues that reveal the impact that early twentieth-century society had on the way people dealt with their health.

Lady Edith has become a more significant and substantial character and many medical questions have revolved around her. Edith's love and editor, Mr. Gregson, has a wife in a mental institution. Although viewers have not yet met this character, it is interesting to think about the legal status of insane people in early 20th-century England. According to A Practical Treatise on the Law of Marriage and Divorce by Leonard Shelford (1841), "The subsequent insanity of a person who was of sound mind at the time of the marriage, does not avoid it, (n) nor release the parties from the duties of their marriage vow." (163) Gregson decides to become a German citizen, giving him new legal avenues to rid himself of his wife in hopes of being with Edith.

Emily Hagens is co-curator of Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness and a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Aside from Masterpiece Theater and rare books, she studies 16th century Italian domestic medicine and vernacular print and manuscript culture.

Most of us know and love Downton Abbey. The beautiful scenery, the love and money that is constantly lost and re-found, the costumes... and the gut-wrenching moments of tragedy, too, keep viewers speculating, hosting themed tea parties, and coming back to Masterpiece Theater's hit show time and again. Although I generally love the show, the historian of medicine side of me also thinks the detailed research that goes into some of the scenes most filled with tension is exciting. When Lois Hendrickson, interim curator at the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, offered me the opportunity to help curate this fall's exhibit Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, I jumped at the opportunity.

DownAbbey.ExhibitPrepPhoto.Glasses.Sept2013.JPGAs a Ph.D. student in the history of medicine, I'm accustomed to research with archival sources and rare books, but this exhibit required a different kind of initial approach. Instead of beginning in the Wangensteen's extensive collections of medical books and artifacts, I began on Hulu, re-watching all three seasons of Downton. With ears and eyes tuned to medical instruments and discussions, I took notes on every instant when a character mentioned, feared, or experienced a medical event. I also spent time perusing social and news media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, XOJane, and the Huffington Post for ideas about what viewers noticed most often about medicine in the show. Some instances were obvious, like the shock at the sudden presence and disappearance of Spanish Influenza. Others made fewer waves, like Mrs. Patmore's cataracts or Mrs. Hughes's breast cancer scare. Since WWI, or The Great War, was such a presence in season 2, Lois and I knew that military medicine would need to be a significant part of the exhibit.

 

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