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“A Peculiar Functional Disorder:” Irritable Heart and the American Civil War
May 9, 2017 @ 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm EDT
Learn more about the incredible work of Dr. Jacob Mendes Da Costa and “irritable heart.”
Dr. Jacob Mendes Da Costa examined Private Joseph Work for the first time at Satterlee General Hospital in west Philadelphia in July 1863. Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Work’s heart had given out. He experienced pain in his chest, exhaustion, and serious heart palpitations—all symptoms of a newly identified disorder. Da Costa named this new “peculiar functional disorder of the heart” irritable heart.
This talk will examine how elite surgeons working in Union Army hospitals and their patients struggled to find a common vocabulary for soldiers’ suffering. Drawing on published medical writing, pension records, court martial records, and soldiers’ letters, Bowen will analyze how two different registers of understanding a soldier’s suffering were mobilized in the clinical encounter. She evaluates how one elite physician, Jacob Mendes Da Costa, studied, defined, and named a new cardiac condition in soldiers: irritable heart.
Ashley Bowen received her PhD in American Studies and Public Humanities from Brown University. Her research focuses on 19th century public health and medicine, the material culture of medicine, and representations of patient experience. She is currently working on turning her dissertation, titled “ ‘All Broke Down:’ The Physiological, Psychological, and Social Origins of Civil War Trauma,” into a book manuscript.
In the summer of 2014, she held a pre-doctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and her research has also been supported by the F.C. Wood Institute for the History of Medicine at the College of Physicians Philadelphia. She has presented her research at a variety of academic conferences, including the annual meetings of the American Historical Association, American Studies Association, and the Organization of American Historians. Bowen also participates in outreach to the general public through events like Nerd Nite [sic], Atlas Obscura’s Obscura Society DC, and more.
In addition to publishing in academic journals, her writing has appeared on Atlas Obscura, Book Riot, the Smithsonian’s blogs, and on the Mercy Street blog run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Prior to entering graduate school, she worked for a variety of museums, health advocacy, and public health organizations.