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The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe

Brittleness, Integration, Science, and the Great War

The injuries suffered by soldiers during WWI were as varied as they were brutal. How could the human body suffer and often absorb such disparate traumas? Why might the same wound lead one soldier to die but allow another to recover?
In The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe, Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers uncover a fascinating story of how medical scientists came to conceptualize the body as an integrated yet brittle whole. Responding to the harrowing experience of the Great War, the medical community sought conceptual frameworks to understand bodily shock, brain injury, and the vast differences in patient responses they occasioned. Geroulanos and Meyers carefully trace how this emerging constellation of ideas became essential for thinking about integration, individuality, fragility, and collapse far beyond medicine: in fields as diverse as anthropology, political economy, psychoanalysis, and cybernetics.
Moving effortlessly between the history of medicine and intellectual history, The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe is an intriguing look into the conceptual underpinnings of the world the Great War ushered in. 

416 pages | 14 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2018

History: European History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Philosophy: Philosophy of Society

Philosophy of Science


"[A] richly innovative study. . . .  Geroulanos and Meyers present an imaginative case for the First World War’s transformative effect on popular and scientific understandings of the human body. Their careful exposition of the spiralling development of the concept of physiological integration in the fields of anthropology, cybernetics and philosophy makes a highly original contribution to 20th-century intellectual history and will provide a fertile springboard for future research."

Times Higher Education

"Geroulanous and Meyers have examined the growth of recognition that the body’s ability to recover, regenerate, or revitalize depended on the integration of body, mind, and patient response. These discoveries also transformed the postwar language of regeneration for politics and recovery of war-torn nations. Recommended."


"By illustrating the debts of the postmodern era to the medical sciences of the early century, Geroulanos and Meyers give us a very different picture of the demise of the liberal subject than the one we knew."

Public Books

"If the ultimate object of history is to understand what it means—has meant—to be human, then Geroulanos and Meyers’s book on the human body as understood by medicine, biological science, sociology, economics, anthropology, psychology, and psychoanalysis in the twentieth century is a tour de force."


"The originality of this volume consists not only in its object, namely the 'ontology of the body at war', but also in the method adopted, which makes use of an extremely detailed research based on the study of medical archives and scientific literature without losing sight of the overall epistemological argument. . . . Geroulanos and Meyers’ thorough investigation on the medical concepts of individuality, integration, and organism is an erudite overview of a wide range of intellectual aspects of western human culture at the turn of World War I. It is a fascinating and extremely rich volume, which provides a very broad and updated overview of the critical literature in English, German and French, and in which every chapter almost represents an autonomous and full-fledged study."


"The value of this book is its deep engagement with new source materials that implicate many core phenomenologists and medical anthropologists. . . Geroulanos and Meyers have offered a vast compilation of historical actors across a range of fields who, together, offer a complex origin story of twentieth-century neuro-physiology, psychology, social theory, political theory, and therapeutics."

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences

"Wonderful and groundbreaking. . . Geroulanos and Meyers have written a monumental book that seems acutely relevant to our time: when the climate crisis and antibiotic resistance once again demonstrate the fragility of our bodies and societies and point to how our bodies are deeply entangled with nature, we once again move towards the body that physiologists and physicians a century ago struggled so hard to understand and construct."


"An inspiring and innovative work that opens up alternative perspectives on how scholarship addresses the history of the conflict. With this study, we have a model for integrating disparate forms of data to conceive an investigation that explains the complex and divergent experiences of the First World War."

Journal of Modern History

“A tour de force of intellectual history. . . . a book of immense erudition and careful exegesis of both scientific and philosophical disputes. It adds an entirely new dimension to our understanding of the effect of the 1914–18 conflict on a number of fields of scientific research and medical practice, including physiology and psychoanalysis. . . . [Geroulanos and Meyers] are to be congratulated for capturing the excitement of the clash of scientific ideas in this period, and for doing so in a way that gives us a glimpse of the foibles of many of the central figures. We not only hear these individuals; we can almost feel them in action. . . . This book is one of the truly original contributions to historical writing to appear during the centenary of the outbreak of the war in 1914.”

History and Theory

"This fascinating and ambitious study demonstrates how a generation of medical scientists and health practitioners were dedicated to reclaiming the humanism of the human being."

American Historical Review

“A shared concept of human individuality lies at the heart of intellectual traditions as varied as psychoanalysis, cybernetics, and medical humanism: an individuality knowable only at the moment of its collapse. This is the remarkable argument of The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe, a provocative and poignant book, and one that will be essential reading for historians of modern science and medicine. By reconstructing modern neuromedicine’s confrontation with the violence of industrialized warfare, Geroulanos and Meyers have given us a model for writing intellectual history that is simultaneously materialized, embodied, and transnational.”

Deborah Coen, Yale University

“Geroulanos and Meyers have written a terrifically original book. In an important sense, it is inventing its own subject—namely, the emergence of the idea that the body is a self-integrating entity—in that there has not to date been a clear articulation of this concept and certainly no comprehensive historical tracking of its development in modern scientific and medical thought. Engaging and clearly written, and with vivid examples, The Human Body in the Age of Catastrophe will certainly attract an eclectic set of readers, but will have especially strong appeal for specialists in the history of medicine, psychology, and social sciences.”

David W. Bates, University of California, Berkeley

"Perhaps the most important service that Geroulanos and Meyers have done for intellectual history is to suggest that medico-physiologists were, in fact, intellectuals and that their ideas catalyzed lines of twentieth-century thought well beyond the clinic or the laboratory. That seems a valuable and necessary first step in widening the conversation between historians of medicine and intellectual historians."

Corinna Treitel | Modern Intellectual History

"An important publication that deals with the medical crisis in the First World War and its significance for the development of scientific medicine in the 20th and early 21st centuries."

NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin (translated from German)

Table of Contents

Prologue: “Why Don’t We Die Daily?”

Part One
1. The Whole on the Verge of Collapse: Physiology’s Test
2. The Puzzle of Wounds: Shock and the Body at War
3. The Visible and the Invisible: The Rise and Operationalization of Case Studies, 1915–1919

Part Two
4. Brain Injury, Patienthood, and Nervous Integration in Sherrington, Goldstein, and Head, 1905–1934
5. Physiology Incorporates the Psyche: Digestion, Emotions, and Homeostasis in Walter Cannon, 1898–1932
6. The Organism and Its Environment: Integration, Interiority, and Individuality around 1930
7. Psychoanalysis and Disintegration: W. H. R. Rivers’s Endangered Self and Sigmund Freud’s Death Drive

Part Three
8. The Political Economy in Bodily Metaphor and the Anthropologies of Integrated Communication
9. Vis medicatrix, or the Fragmentation of Medical Humanism
10. Closure: The Individual
Abbreviations and Archives

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