Surgery and Emotion is an interdisciplinary, four-year project exploring the emotional landscape of surgery from 1800 to the present.

It is supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award and is based at the University of Roehampton.

This project explores the place of emotion within the practice, politics and representation of surgery in the nineteenth century and the modern day.

Undergoing surgery can be an extremely emotionally troubling experience for patients. Performing surgery also makes its emotional demands on surgical operators. Despite this, the emotional dynamics of surgery have yet to be fully explored. This project seeks to understand how surgeons conceive of their work and their relationships with patients in terms of feeling. Often, these relationships are thought of as being shaped principally by ‘clinical detachment’, but this project endeavours to push beyond such clichés to explore the emotional complexities of the surgical encounter.

As well as engaging with current surgical practitioners and patients, this project brings a historical perspective to bear on the issue of surgical emotion. Before the advent of anaesthetics in the 1840s, surgical operations were undertaken with little or no pain relief and occasioned great physical suffering and emotional distress. However, rather than producing detachment or dispassion in surgeons, such emotional complexities gave rise to a range of feelings from pity and sympathy to anxiety, regret and anger. Patients, too, experienced a broad spectrum of emotions from fear through to joy.

Encompassing surgery in both peace and war, this project will consider how emotions shaped nineteenth-century surgical practice as well as the identities and reputations of its practitioners. It will explore the patient’s perspective and their emotional relationships with surgeons, as well as how pain and suffering came to function as powerful tools for change. It will also examine what effect such innovations as anaesthesia had on the emotional cultures of surgery and whether changing social ideas concerning the expression of feeling also played a role.

By bringing together historical inquiry and modern experience, this project hopes to stimulate debate about the place of emotion in surgery and to see whether clinical practice and patient care might be improved by taking emotions seriously.