Meet our PhD Students – Evelien Lemmens

Evelien Lemmens completed her MA History at Queen Mary University of London in September 2013, focusing on gender history and the history of emotions – particularly on eighteenth-century jealousy. Before moving to London in 2012, she read BA History at the Katholieke Unviersiteit Leuven in Belgium. Evelien is Belgian, and has lived in Belgium, Portugal, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and London.

In 2016 Europe, we need not look far to be reminded of the integral role that diet and the gut play in determining the quality of our physical and mental health. Superfoods, probiotics, prebiotics, antioxidants, organic, fermented, ‘live culture’, toxins, and ‘Omega 3’: we are bombarded with buzzwords that we are encouraged to live our life by, without fully understanding the intricacies that they encompass. Looking to societies past, historic sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – medical, philosophical, literary, didactic, colloquial – reveal a similar (but very different) historically established relationship between emotions and the body’s digestive organs and processes. Nineteenth-century melancholy and dyspepsia were for example observed to go hand in hand; the result of an overly luxurious diet or sedentary lifestyle.

My research will trace the relationship between diet, digestion and emotion in Britain and the Netherlands between 1850 and 1950. This will include both an analysis of the observed effects of emotions – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – on the gastro-intestinal organs, and a consideration of how digestive disorders could impact on emotional wellbeing. In his A History of the Modern Stomach Ian Miller presents the stomach as a “historic index of social anxiety” in Britain between 1800 and 1950. My research will analyse whether or not a similar trend can be identified in the Netherlands, a country which witnessed different changes at different speeds – thus different causes for “social anxiety” – during this period.

Historical research by Ian Miller, Edgar Jones and Rhodri Hayward will be essential starting points in the case of Britain. While these historians have focused on gastric disorders in British adult males, my research promises to add a comparative and international dimension, and to incorporate an analysis of gender and attention to childhood emo-gastro-intestinal disorders. Reading a vast variety of source material with a broad analysis across gender, class and international borders, I will attempt to bridge the ‘elite’ and the ‘vernacular’ in the history of medicine and emotions.

You might also like to read Evelien’s previous post for us about our launch event ‘What is Emotional Health?’