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Research projects

Migraine and The Migraineur

Funded by the Wellcome Trust

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Katherine Foxhall

Project commenced January 2011

This three-year project will develop a historical account of migraine and the ‘migraineur’ in the modern period. It will explore how medical, social and cultural understandings of the disorder and its sufferers have changed in Britain, and the implications for our understanding of gender, class, acute and chronic disease, and the stories that modern medicine constructs.

The study starts in the 1860s, when Cambridge scientists including George Airy and John Herschel corresponded in private and in scientific journals about the visual disturbances they experienced. Their discussions directly influenced Edward Liveing’s seminal On Megrim (1873), the first book to focus solely on migraine. In the late Victorian period physicians understood migraine to be an ‘explosive neurosis’, suffered by men of intellect. But, new ideas about the brain, new institutional settings, and new kinds of sufferer, meant that by the early twentieth century the figure of the migraine sufferer increasingly appeared as a female patient. Theories about psychology and hormones confirmed the ‘migraine personality’ as predominantly female. In 1960, the introduction of methysergide transformed physicians’ understanding of migraine. What had been, by medical consensus, a psychosomatic disorder, was now treatable by drugs.

This project will explore how a seemingly triumphant story of migraine as an acute disease targeted by pharmaceutical companies has reified, at the same time as it has obscured, this historical narrative. Current studies estimate that 12% of the European and American population suffer migraine each year. The WHO recognises migraine as a top twenty cause of ‘years lived with disability’, and in Britain, the media report it as a leading reason for workplace absenteeism. The hundreds of works of art entered for four Migraine Art competitions in the 1980s illustrate the persistence of migraine as a serious and intractable chronic health problem with profound consequences for sufferers.

Through migraine, the project will address larger questions about the social and cultural roots of acute and chronic disease, illness narratives, the representation of disease, the role of the pharmaceutical industry in shaping medical histories, and the impact of class and gender on understandings of and approaches towards illness. The project will also place migraine’s British history in its international context.

During the project, Katherine will work closely with colleagues in the Department of History and the King's Centre for the Humanities and Health, with migraine charities and other professionals. Academic conference papers, public presentations, and research articles written during the research phases will disseminate the research ideas and contribute to broader debates and trends in the history of medicine and medical humanities.

The project will culminate in an accessible, scholarly book designed to appeal to a wide audience as well as to historians of medicine and modern society.

Image: Depiction of scotomas. Hubert Airy, "On a distinct form of transient hemiopsia", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Feb. 1870).

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