The Physiology of Hypochondria in Eighteenth-Century Britain

  • Fredrik Albritton Jonsson


During the eighteenth century, the stomachs of the British upper ranks threatened to turn on their owners and devour them from the inside. These fears of gastric rebellion in the polite interior were articulated in a series of medical manuals on hypochondria between the 1720s and the early 1800s. Physicians like George Cheyne, Bernard Mandeville, Robert Whytt, and William Smith josded to capture a slice of the market. What came first—the cannibal stomach or the book-peddling physician—is quite impossible to say. Both were parasites of a churning consumer economy. Yet, the precise meaning of this peculiar disease remains elusive. One line of interpretation, promoted by John Mullan, stresses the literary and philosophical character of hypochondria in the period. Another angle, supplied by Roy Porter, emphasizes its wider social meaning, as a locus for anxieties tied to the moral and medical effects of consumption.1 My essay offers a third perspective on the boom and bust of this disease, giving particular weight to the social distinctions encoded in the physiology of hypochondria.


Eighteenth Century Involuntary Motion Moral Sentiment Vital Fluid Consumer Society 
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© Christopher E. Forth and Ana Carden-Coyne 2005

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  • Fredrik Albritton Jonsson

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