This blog is about my search for the history of migraine, and the people who have experienced, treated and discussed this common disorder. This project covers an ambitious time span – from the fifteenth-century, to the modern-day.
There are many words for migraine in the English language; since the Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher Galen coined the term hemicrania to describe one-sided head pain in the second century, variations of this word have included emigranea, megrim, meagrom, and migraine, among others. In later centuries, we can also include sick and bilious headache. As illnesses go, it is a relatively easy one to find, particularly as more and more historical archives are digitised and the text becomes searchable.
Medical practitioners and theorists are an important part of the history that I want to write, of course. But they are not the only history of migraine. I believe that as a historian of illness, as well as medicine, I should do more than look back in time for landmark moments, or symptoms that conform to –and confirm the rise of – modern knowledge.
So my project has become an exploration of archival remnants and glimpses of past lives; it looks for migraine in unusual places, and focuses on the people who give us a glimpse of this history, even if for just a moment. I am fascinated by Francis Thomson who hid in his pigeon house in the 1590s, and debated whether it was safe to travel to Buxton to seek the healing waters of St Anne for his mygrim and sciatica. In order to understand Francis’ experience of mygrim, we also need to know something of life in post-Reformation England.
When I find examples of migraine in the past, I want to ask what, at this particular moment, in this particular place, did this particular person mean by the thing they called migraine? The seventeenth-century recipe compiler Jane Jackson understood that there were several different kinds of migraine, which each warranted a different treatment. On the other hand, in the nineteenth century, Hubert Airy thought that auras were a window to the brain. In the late twentieth century, hundreds of people with migraine gave expression to their experiences by entering art competitions.
What has migraine meant to these people who, by writing, speaking or drawing about migraine, have left us evidence of its history? I want to know who gets to make migraine knowledge, and how do these different kinds of knowledge layer, accumulate, or disappear over time? Under what circumstances do words about illness gain authority, or get taken seriously? How rich can a history of an everyday illness be when we move beyond the makers of formal medical knowledge, and on to the streets with the people who negotiate their disorder in their everyday lives?
I hope you will find this blog interesting as I develop this history.