112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

Miasmatic Theories: The Medical Prescience of Edgar Allan Poe

Cristina Perez, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, España; West Virginia University

This article will demonstrate how Poe, through his medical research and interests (especially focusing on the miasmatic theories), introduced elements of medicine and science in his works in order to create an atmosphere of terror for his readers and contemporaries. 


Edgar Allan Poe’s obsession with medical pathology did not remain in his private conversations and encounters with the mesmerist Sarah Helen Whitman, but transcended to a big portion of his whole work - that knowledge gathered from the mesmerists translated in his short stories into organic decomposition and electrical theories. With the growing popularity of sensationalism by physics in the American prewar period, professional medical publications, treaties such as Klecksographien by Justinius Kerner (which inspired not only Poe but also Rorschach), magazines, English periodicals of the 1830’s and theatre, Edgar Allan Poe and his compositions were significantly influenced.

The eye devices of the time, like the kaleidoscope and the stereoscope also had an impact on his work, this resulted in an optical science for Poe through the psychopathology of perception, optical illusions, fallacies of vision, sleepwalking and play between sensory illusions and hallucinations. The magnetoesteticism, stereoscopic effects and proliferation of photography had a wide appeal and influence on his final works. The optical play is directly related to the brain issues and the splitting of the brain that seems to have been discovered by Poe, its division and activity, as well as the narrative structures and pathways to delirium. In Eleanora we find multiple passages in which, because of Poe’s narratological techniques, sensations of colors and prisms are experienced. This aspect of Poe’s work will be approached through the optical illusions and images in (and of) color, visual perception obtained in the narratives and the neurological issues that affected the characters on his work.

After explaining this phenomenology, this article will delve into the real treatment of medicine in Poe’s work. In Berenice, for instance, we will not only find a narrator which suffers from monomania, and the main character of epilepsy and trance: two forms of hysteria according to psychiatry in the 19th century, but also from diseases such as the yellow fever, the idiopathic phrenitis and the nervous fever which are talked about and described.

Through stories like Ligeia, Berenice and The Glasses Poe’s obsession for the vision will be analyzed, and the disproportion, deformity and catalepsy in The Fall of the House of Usher, the hypnagogic states, electrical phenomena and the 19th century concept of miasma, which will occupy the biggest part of this article. In The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Colloquy of Monos and Una, Morella and, of course, Mesmeric Revelation, we have uncountable examples where mesmerism, electrical psychology, animal magnetism and miasma are used by Poe as well as the ways in which his contemporaries preserved decay.
This use of medical pathology by Poe is excellent, and considered by many as “medicine before medicine”: the medical prescience of Edgar Allan Poe, an extremely advanced approach to medicine at a time when it was of little access to ordinary citizens – for instance, concepts of organic decaying and chemical preservation appear in Poe’s work described in thorough detail. Poe uses miasma in a very considerable number of his stories.