Being Lister: ethos and Victorian medical discourse

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Abstract

Stylistic analysis and rhetorical theory are used in this study to inform our understanding of impediments to the successful uptake of a new medical idea. Through examination of the work of the Victorian surgeon Joseph Lister, who was described by one biographer as suffering from “stylistic ham-handedness”, the study provides insights into the difficulty that Lister had in explaining his theory of antiseptic surgery. Using three comparisons—Lister’s scientific style in public discourse with that of his students, and Lister’s scientific style in private discourse with those of both a surbordinate and a superior—the study suggests that the rhetorical concept of ethos played a major role in his communication difficulties. In this way, it presents a more nuanced perspective on modern presentations of “model” communications versus communication failures: that is, that problematic written discourse offers as useful a heuristic device as does exemplary discourse.

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