Skip to main content

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Bodies Politic

Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650–1900

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Bodies Politic

Disease, Death and Doctors in Britain, 1650–1900

In this historical tour de force, Roy Porter takes a critical look at representations of the body in health, disease, and death in Britain from the mid-seventeenth to the twentieth century. Porter argues that great symbolic weight was attached to contrasting conceptions of the healthy and diseased body and that such ideas were mapped onto antithetical notions of the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. With these images in mind, he explores aspects of being ill alongside the practice of medicine, paying special attention to self-presentations by physicians, surgeons, and quacks, and to changes in practitioners’ public identities over time. Porter also examines the wider symbolic meanings of disease and doctoring and the “body politic.” Porter’s book is packed with outrageous and amusing anecdotes portraying diseased bodies and medical practitioners alike.

368 pages | 137 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4

History: British and Irish History


Reaktion Books image

View all books from Reaktion Books


“[A] wonderful book. [Porter] says in his introduction that he turned his eye from text to illustration and saw a new story to tell. There are 153 illustrations in this book, 32 in color, and every one is an exultation in the fleshly horrors of the era.”


“Porter is one of the world’s best historical writers: his prose is pithy, witty, vivid, engaging and perfectly paced. He has a keen eye for evidence and can wrest conclusions with analytical rigor and imaginative subtlety. He masters fact and theory with equal ease and wields both lightly and powerfully . . . . Porter’s book illuminates the past. Present trends make it also seem ominously prophetic.”


“This handsome book offers further insights into Porter’s extensive medical history of the long eighteenth century. . . . Lavish pictorial histories of medicine have become common lately, some of them offering little beyond their illustrations. Porter’s account is solid and engaging, supported rather than dominated by the pictures. . . . In offering his own analysis, Porter also offers scope for variant interpretations.”

Times Literary Supplement

“[A] riveting account. The great strength of this book lies in its use of visual material. Porter has made a fine attempt at helping us understand the past through caricature, illustrations, and sketches, as well as his own words. It is these images, by the likes of Cruikshank and Rowlandson, which make this such an excoriating account.”

Independent on Sunday

“The book is handsomely printed, and the reproductions are of good quality, an essential requirement in a book of this kind. [Porter’s] knowledge of the material is unrivaled, and when he writes in unadorned fashion of the careers of doctors, writers and artists, he could hardly be bettered. [Porter’s] book may be read with great pleasure and profit.”

Sunday Telegraph

“[A] magical history tour of illness and public attitudes to disease and doctors over the past 250 years. Dense with thought-provoking reflections and makes you realize how very much we remain at the mercy of all too fallible doctors.”

Daily Mail

“Ably exploiting the rapid expansion of printed material (medical almanacs, magazines, newspapers, novels, and their associated visual images such as the political cartoon) across that period, Porter has woven a neat but complex discursive tapestry charting the changing faces, models, and meanings of early modern medical knowledge and practice in particular.”

Reviews in History

“The book fairly quivers with Porter’s sense of the ridiculous, exploring the peccadilloes of both practitioners and patients in wicked and sometimes scatological detail. It is full of jokes that reveal both the deadly importance of, and the universal indignities associated with suffering and healing. As is true of Porter’s other works, it also places health, illness, and medicine at the vital center of British social and political life.”

H-Net Reviews

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press