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The History of Medicine on TV: A Conversation with Diagnosing History editors Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo, and James Leggott

With the second season of Bridgerton as one of the most-watched shows on Netflix so far this year, it’s clear that period dramas continue to be hugely popular. Amidst the fancy costumes and beautiful sets, one of the most common themes in a period drama is health and medicine. Medical plots and subplots provide drama, of course, but also a bit of gore, speaking to the popular belief that medicine in the past was grotesque and ill-informed. But health-related plotlines can do more than use blood and guts to advance a plot. These shows also reflect modern research, tap into political and social movements, and ask viewers to contemplate continuities between past and present. In their new volume, Diagnosing History: Medicine in Television Period Drama, published in 2021 by Manchester University Press, editors Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo, and James Leggott have gathered a diverse group of scholars from a wide array of fields, including communications, literature, medical humanities, drama, film studies, and the history of medicine, to analyze these themes in television period dramas. In fifteen chapters, authors tackle subjects such as Black doctors in American shows, representations of gay conversion therapy on Australia’s favorite historical melodrama, and gender and anatomical dissection in small-screen gothic horror. For any historian of medicine who has experienced that love-hate relationship of watching their research subject matter played out on the small screen, this sharp and thought-provoking book will be a must-read.

Book jacket with title in white over light blue background, with a photo from a popular medical drama at the top featuring a white doctor surrounded by white women nurses holding babies
Cover of Diagnosing History. (© Manchester University Press)

Sarah: As you point out in the introduction, themes of health and medicine are very common in period dramas. Why do you think that is? What appeal do these storylines have for viewers?

Julie, Katherine, and James: A variety of reasons: some story lines allow us to breathe a sigh of relief that we no longer have to contend with death from illnesses we now treat with antibiotics or prevent with vaccines. Others, such as maternal deaths in childbirth or plagues, feel too timely for us but may also help us make sense of the crises we’re trying to cope with today. A lot of us may have a love/hate relationship with medicine and science: we see doctors, nurses, midwives and, of course, patients in a more human light in all of these dramas and they feel very relatable. What all these plot lines share is a real sense of humans working together for the common good; even the most flawed medical professionals in these shows are in pursuit of progress and dreaming of a future where people will live longer, healthier lives. And, despite all the flaws in our modern world, that has been largely achieved, in developed nations at least. So, unlike so many things that seem to get worse throughout history, medicine appears as a success story we can all applaud!

Sarah: Many of the chapters draw links between plot lines on television shows and modern issues. One that stood out to me was Katherine’s chapter on how Call the Midwife has played into modern ideas about “normal” or “natural” childbirth. What role do you think period dramas play in the way that viewers think about health and medicine today?

Katherine: Many period dramas really make us grateful for scientific progress, modern medical practices and recent institutions like the NHS by showing us how vulnerable we humans were before they existed. Call the Midwife is a bit different because it is set in a recent past where the characters can benefit from antibiotics and pain relief, yet also benefit from more personal and attentive care than what we feel we can get in today’s pressured public health service. With Call the Midwife, real-life practitioners and parents alike wish they had the time to develop the personal care relationships with each other that the show depicts! It is a real reminder of how public health should be – but sadly isn’t.

Sarah: A theme I’ve increasingly noticed in period dramas is trauma, and I’ve concluded that this is informed by a growing popular awareness around trauma. In turn, it seems to me that people are now perhaps more conscious of trauma and its resulting disorders. As you put together the book, how did you see popular interest shaping the medical storylines in period dramas? Do you think those storylines have a social effect?

Julie, Katherine, and James: When it comes to trauma, period drama shows largely focus on war and PTSD, not just for soldiers, but for their caregivers as well. Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970s was one of the first to cover this storyline, as viewers would still have surviving relatives from the two world wars. Now there’ve been so many wars that viewers would likely know about, and be touched personally by this issue. But there are other kinds of trauma as well – mainly as the result of sexual violence, and that’s a subject Kate and Julie explore in a separate book on rape and period TV (Lexington 2022).

Sarah: You note in the introduction that the COVID-19 pandemic began while this book was being written. How do you think the pandemic has changed the way we process medical plotlines in historical dramas?

Julie: Re-watching some dramas that have storylines about smallpox outbreaks or communities’ resistance to vaccination that were filmed pre-pandemic can feel a bit eerie and uncomfortable. We watch and perhaps find ourselves yelling at the screen, “Why haven’t we learned anything?!” But these storylines also help us understand why there is so much division within the medical and patient community about COVID treatments, prevention, etc. right now. Fear and anxiety shape these narratives and sometimes how we watch and receive them. These dramas do not always make for comforting TV.

Katherine: Medical plotlines have always been popular, but I think we understand and appreciate them more now that we feel public health has moved to the center of all our lives. Medicine is no longer on the periphery of our existence. We are all so much more medically literate since the pandemic, too, that we have greater knowledge and understanding of the more technical details of these shows. Not so many of us knew so much about T cells and mutating viruses two and a half years ago! And I think we have new emotional investment in the professionals who have cared for us. I wonder if shows featuring evil, monstrous doctors, like The Frankenstein Chronicles and Penny Dreadful, would be made in the same way in 2022.

Sarah: Your volume covers many super popular period dramas like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Call the Midwife, Outlander, and Harlots. Is there a television show that didn’t make it in that you’d love to see get this kind of analysis?

Julie: We were supposed to have a chapter on the neo-Victorian period comedy Quacks – a one-season British show about the early days of surgery. It’s grisly and very funny and actually quite realistic: the sexism of the doctors, unsterile public surgeries, bloodied doctors’ aprons, etc. The chapter fell through at the last minute and, of course, by the time our book went to print, new episodes of some of the series we covered were already airing. For example, in season six of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby’s ongoing battle with trauma, and what he’s led to believe is tuberculoma merits attention. We’d also liked to have had time to focus on Bridgerton’s medical storylines (the daughter’s lack of sex education and maternal mortality), and the Spanish drama High Seas actually had a storyline of a virus unleashed on board the cruise ship, with a heroic race to produce a vaccine before the ship docked! Perhaps if more people watched it, they’d embrace vaccines with less hesitation.

Katherine:You mentioned trauma, and I would love to be able to include the most recent episodes of Bridgerton, which explores Anthony’s PTSD as a result of his father’s sudden death from a bee sting allergy. However, the panic attack he undergoes when Kate is also stung by a bee is romanticized and eroticized in a way very remote from most viewers’ experience of panic!

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