Medical Liberty and Alternative Health Practices in Nineteenth-century Britain

Date of Award

Summer 7-16-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Klaver, Coran


alternative medicine, anti-vaccinationism, hydropathy, medical liberty, vegetarianism

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature


My dissertation traces the historical emergence of the nineteenth-century British concept of medical liberty. The concept appeared as the period's medical nonconformists challenged state-authorized professional medicine's increasing control over individual bodily matters. To sanction the layperson's common sense and intuition over and against professional expertise, the rhetoric of medical liberty drew authority from the idea of a "natural" self, a potentially universal figure that nevertheless, in practice, proponents of medical liberty tended to conflate discursively with racial purity and able-bodied self-reliance. Examining a variety of nineteenth-century British archives (pamphlets, tracts, memoirs, periodicals, novels, and cartoons) on alternative health practices, such as anti-vaccination, hydropathy, and vegetarianism, I uncover the ways in which the rhetoric of medical liberty empowered the lay individual by drawing on hegemonic health norms (i.e., de-naturalizing brown and disabled bodies) while, counterintuitively, glorifying the individual as a sufferer of political marginalization by biomedical hegemony. The mutually constitutive relationship between medical liberty and medical racism offers an especially timely framework to theorize the tensions between individual liberty and public health in the age of Covid-19.


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