Special Section Theory Studies Comparative Biography Text Studies Autobiography Studies Oral History Studies History of Biography Subject Study Film Biography Studies From Life Writers
“Helpe Others Out of a Fellow-Feeling”: The Romantic Science of the Pathography

Abstract: Over the past fifty years the pathography –– auto/biographical accounts of illness –– has established itself as a genre the sick and the healthy alike turn to explore the revelations brought about by illness, pain and suffering. This article will provide a broad overview of the historical development of the pathography as a didactic genre by focusing on three key figures: Robert Burton, Samuel Johnson, and Oliver Sacks. Each of these figures in their own right have contributed to the notion that writing and reading about illness can not only provide guidance and consolation but also edification. In the early modern period Burton contributed towards to the image of the author as a suffering healer who acts as a guide to the reader who, in turn, may find solace, if not a cure in the act of reading. One frequent reader of Burton’s magnum opus, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), was the eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson, who according to James Boswell, “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise”. For Johnson, the Anatomy provided practical guidance on how to cope with his melancholy but also advice to others who were undergoing ordeals such as the loss of a loved one. Since the late twentieth century, pathography has gained a wide readership from health care professionals to literary critics. One of the pioneers of the modern pathography is the neurologist and “romantic scientist” Oliver Sacks who sought to reframe medical discourse to discover and affirm the potential positive dimensions of the illness experience. For writers and readers alike the power of pathography lies in the autobiographical pact, that is, that the person writing about their illness has a direct personal experience of the catastrophic but also the transformative effects of serious illness.

Keywords: pathography, autobiography, biography, didacticism