5. Pathologizing Poverty The Metaphor of Contagion from Poor Law to Public Health

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Debolina Dey


This chapter looks at the pathologisation of poverty in the context of the New Poor Law (1834), its afterlife and the establishment of the Public Health Act (1848). It seeks to establish the connection between idioms of writing disease and the political process of pathologizing destitution—through the historical contiguity between discourses of disease and charity/relief.

Taking Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as a point of entry to look at the interchanges and the slippages between metaphorical and material uses of contagion, I examine closely the resonances of that metaphorical exchange in the Poor Law Commissioners’ Report (1834) and in Edwin Chadwick’s Sanitary Report (1842), that reformulated the traditional relationship of health and poverty leading to the establishment of the Public Health Act in 1848. Disease becomes a form, a trope, even a narrative device which categorizes a certain group of population as pathological, both metaphorically and through the inductive reasoning of commissioned reports. Thus ‘contagion’ is no longer just a noun and a medical term. By becoming a metaphor, it acquires adjectival potency—‘contagious’—through synonymous exchanges and thereby slips through generic specificities. Nonetheless, the metaphorical weight of what is diagnosed as ‘contagious’, especially within the framework of a legal commissioned report, still bears the scientificity of a medical term and provides legitimacy to this report. The fact that the laws on Public Health and sanitation came on the back of the amendment of a legislation that was meant for managing relief for the poor shows how closely the history of medicine is tied to the history of laws.

Keywords: Contagion, Metaphor, Idioms of disease, Victorian, Public Health


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