Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720: About the Research Project

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Hannah Newton has been awarded Wellcome Trust funding for her new research project ‘Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720’.  Below Hannah tells us more about this exciting project and what it entails:



Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720

by Hannah Newton

The Wellcome project is an investigation of what it was like to be ill, or to witness the illness of others, in early modern England. To do this, I’m taking a new, sensory approach, asking how were the five were senses affected by disease and treatment, and what were the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the sick chamber?

The importance of the senses during illness began to emerge in my first book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England: I noticed that for parents, the greatest source of grief was not so much the death of the child, but rather, seeing and hearing the child suffer. The example that sticks in my mind is the clergyman Isaac Archer, who wrote during the illness of his baby daughter Mary, ‘Oh what griefe was it to mee to heare it groane, to see it’s sprightly eyes turne to mee for helpe in vain!’ It gradually dawned on me that for family members, the five senses were the only way that they can experience the illness of another person – they couldn’t share with it physically, but they can witness it with their eyes, ears, and other sensory organs.

Intro pic 1

‘The Sense of Smell’, 1651; by P. Boone; Wellcome Library, London. A man vomits, while those around him hold their noses.


The senses were also a major part of the patient’s experience of illness, as I started to notice in my second project, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England. One of the major signs of recovery was the joyful restoration of the patient’s sensory powers. The Yorkshire gentlewoman Alice Thornton recorded in her diary that on the 17 January 1667 her five-year-old son Robin, sick of smallpox, ‘began to see againe’, and by the next day ‘his sight clearly recovered’. Illness affected the patient’s senses in numerous ways – it could dull them, heighten them, or produce what early modern doctors called ‘depraved’ sensations, such as tinnitus, flashing lights, and itching. Besides these individual sensory symptoms, I think it’s possible that the more general, indefinable feeling of illness – which today might be called ‘malaise’ – may have been a combination of all the slightly peculiar sensations that occur during illness.


Intro pic 2

‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; Städel Museum, Germany. The man’s face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion after tasting the bitter medicine.


By exploring these various sensory experiences, the overall aim of the project is to reach a closer understanding and empathy for the sick and their families, both in the past and present.

** Hannah’s book  The Sick Child in Early Modern England (OUP, 2012) is out now and can be purchased via OUP or Amazon.**


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2 Responses to Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England, 1580-1720: About the Research Project

  1. Pingback: Sickly Smells & Putrid Potions | Health Humanities Research Group

  2. Jacqui Turner says:

    Extremely proud of our brilliant colleague Hannah
    So well deserved, our students will be absolutely delighted too

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