Introducing the Centre for the History of the Emotions

Colin Jones is Professor of History at Queen Mary, University of London, and a member of the steering group of the Centre for the History of the Emotions. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and is currently President of the Royal Historical Society. This article originally introduced a series of articles by members of the centre in the latest issue of Wellcome History magazine.

The Centre for the History of the Emotions, drawing its members from a range of schools and departments at Queen Mary, University of London, was established in 2008. Its founders were all recent appointees at QMUL: Dr Thomas Dixon (who continues to serve as the Centre’s Director), Dr Rhodri Hayward and I from the School of History and Dr Elena Carrera from the School of Languages, Linguistics and Film. Dr Fay Bound Alberti, as Wellcome Trust- funded Senior Research Fellow, also contributed significantly, before recently leaving for a position at the Wellcome Trust. The Centre’s activities came to focus on the histories of passions and emotions in the contexts of science, medicine, psychiatry, education, drama and performance. Its projects and events in London now attract national and international attention. And its interdisciplinary History of Emotions email list has almost a thousand subscribers (primarily research scholars) worldwide.

The particularly strong history of medicine element within the Centre was apparent from the start and in 2009 the Centre won a Wellcome Trust Enhancement Award for a programme entitled ‘Medicine, Emotion and Disease’. The medical history component within the School of History continued to develop, boosted in 2010 by the relocation of Professor Tilli Tansey from the old UCL Wellcome Trust Centre. She has established the Modern Biomedicine Research Group, and will draw on a Trust Strategic Award to support a new phase of development of the celebrated Wellcome Witness Seminars. The programme extends the strong interdisciplinary links which the historians of medicine enjoy across the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences towards the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry (Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry).

These developments have within a few years made the QMUL group into one of the most substantial, lively and dynamic communities of historians of medicine in the UK, with a burgeoning and diverse series of lectures, seminars, conferences and events. During 2011, for example, a committee of PhD students at the Centre, chaired by Tiffany Watt-Smith (now British Academy postdoctoral fellow within the Centre), organised two highly successful events funded by the Wellcome Trust: an international conference on ‘Mastering the Emotions’ with Sally Shuttleworth and Allan Young as keynote speakers, and a postgraduate summit for history of medicine students from across the UK. Other recent initiatives include a series of workshops co-organised with the Warwick Centre for the History of Medicine on the recent history of mental health, illustrated discussions with the US performance artist Ron Athey, symposia on emotions and health and emotional transmission, outreach events with the London Philosophy Club, and a project with local schools in the East End on the embodiment of emotions.

These activities take place within the context of QMUL’s enhanced international standing. It was ranked 11th in the Guardian’s RAE2008 rankings, and Times Higher Education considered that its leap of over 30 places in the RAE rankings made it “the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions”. QMUL has invested heavily in the humanities and social sciences, and in 2011 the School of History moved into a dedicated £12 million new building.

To the five core staff (Dixon, Hayward, Tansey, Carrera and me), can currently be added three funded postdoctoral fellows and nine funded postgraduates. In addition, there are many other associated staff across the Faculty with history of medicine interests, including Professors Miri Rubin and Amanda Vickery and Dr Sue Edgington in History, Ali Campbell and Suzy Willson in Drama, Professors Lisa Jardine and Evelyn Welch in English, and Professor Alison Blunt and Dr Bronwyn Parry in Geography. Many of these individuals have secured Wellcome Trust funding in the past, though the Centre has also been successful with the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust and the Carnegie Trust. The grant value of awards to core staff in the area is now approaching £4 million.

The international outreach of the Centre is secured partly by its email list and partly by a recently established blog, which seeks to connect QMUL research to public policy, popular culture and current affairs. A visiting doctoral scheme develops links with related research centres in Britain and overseas, with notably close links to the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. Along with Professor Ute Frevert of the latter institution, Thomas Dixon has established a monograph series on the History of the Emotions, to be published by Oxford University Press. The Centre has recently appointed Jules Evans as Policy Director, who is already contributing actively to supporting and extending the Centre’s programmes. A high point this year will be in September, when the Centre will host the biennial international conference of the Society for the Social History of Medicine, on the theme ‘Emotions, Health and Wellbeing’.