Jonathan Swift's language: Mind and brain in life and death

Marjorie Perlman LORCH
Birkbeck College, University of London


Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was a leading figure in 18th century Ireland; famous and infamous for his political satire. He also wrote extensively on mind/brain relations as well as language reform and machine translation. The chronic illnesses he suffered throughout his life involving vertigo, deafness and nausea have been of interest to medical historians since Ménière's disease was first described in 1861. However, the behaviour Swift exhibited during the final 3 years of his life was cause of much speculation amongst his contemporaries (Dr. Johnson, Alexander Pope, Sir Walter Scott, etc) and for the past 250 years since his death. The symptoms Swift displayed of cognitive changes, memory impairment, personality alterations, language disorder and facial paralysis have all been apportioned differing levels of significance. In the 18th century issues concerning madness and rationality were a major social concern of the day. In the first half of the 19th century Sir William Wilde (1835) exhumed Swift's skull to allow phrenological scrutiny. Fifty years later issues of cortical organization of cognitive function led to another exhumation and investigation of Swift's skull and brain cast (Bucknill, 1882). In the 20th century Osler (1902) used Jonathan Swift as a representative case study, Russell Brain (1952) presented Swift's last illness as a demonstration of both modern understanding of disease process and psychoanalytical approaches to personality. In the last 10 years, Swift's cognitive impairments have again been reinterpreted (Crichton, 1993). These various attempts to re-diagnose Swift’s final mental state and re-examination of his skull, death mask and brain cast reveal much about the changing issues of interest to clinicians and theorists regarding interpretations of language, behaviour and cognition from the 18th century to the present day.


18th Century Neuroscience Symposium -- Function in the "Long" 18th Century: The Transition from Medieval Cell Doctrine to Cortical Localization Doctrine
Saturday, 26 June 2004, 9:00 am - 6:30 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada