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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Taft Lecture: Medical Humanities. Dr Elizabeth Watkins "Stress and the American Vernacular: Popular Perceptions of Disease Causality"

Dr. Elizabeth Watkins, Vice chair and Director of graduate studies at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine, Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine. University of Cincinnati

Gives the talk: "Stress and the American Vernacular: Popular Perceptions of Disease Causality"

This paper explores popular understandings of and references to stress as a cause of disease, looking at how and when stress made its way into common parlance in America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people blamed a variety of symptoms or ills on their nerves. Nerves were replaced by stress in the mid-20th century, after Hans Selye's first use of the term in the 1930s. The source material for this paper is popular periodicals, which both shape and reflect public understanding of scientific and medical topics. I am interested in how illness is differently explained within different historical frames (using the metaphor developed by Charles Rosenberg). These frames reflect the social and cultural constraints under which medicine operates; both physicians and patients live within the context of their times and are subject to contemporary values and attitudes, as well as the latest theories about physiology and pathology. Rosenberg also acknowledges the critical role of laypeople in shaping the illness experience. I have long been interested in the transmission and translation of scientific and medical ideas from experts to the lay public. In this study, stress serves as a case study of how a medical idea makes its way from professional discourse into everyday vernacular.

Date of the talk: 10/27/10

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