A Model Patient: Uses and Abuses of History in the Cancer Personality Literature

Joanna Baines


Since the second century AD, when Galen attributed cancer to the melancholic
temperament, individual mental, emotional, and physical characteristics have often
been associated with both the onset, and subsequent progression, of the disease.
Although this conceptual relationship has been mentioned in numerous studies, it
has rarely been the main focus, and has often been left un-historicized, commented
on but not explored. At different times, and in different discourses, such varied
aspects as the nervous system, the mind, the immune system, and a person’s
genetic make-up, have all been prioritized, both as mechanisms through which this
phenomenon can operate, and as a defining feature of the self. In this paper, the
ideas of two strident commentators on the subject, Hans Eysenck (1916–1997),
renowned and controversial behavioural psychologist, and Herbert Snow (1847–
1931), surgeon at the Cancer Hospital, Brompton, and prolific author on the subject
of malignant disease, will be examined and compared. Though initially similar, a
closer analysis of these theorists’ ideas raises a number of issues. The relationship
between cancer and gender, the historical specificity of behavioural norms, and the
need to tame the uncertainty that surrounds idiosyncratic conditions, will all be
explored. This comparison usefully illustrates the interesting and complex cognitive
relationship we have had, and continue to have, with cancerous disease.

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