Victorian Science and Medicine
The English society that Bram Stoker portrayed in Dracula reflected many recognizably “modern” aspects of life in the last decade of the nineteenth century: mechanized technologies (trains, typewriters, phonographs), changing gender roles, the bustling streets of populous cities, and increasingly scientific modes of thought. The protagonists’ conflict with Dracula stages this society and its modern sensibilities against “old world” ways of knowing and understanding, including beliefs in the supernatural. Prominent among the social changes that Stoker tracks are developments in science and medicine, as represented by the character of Dr. John Seward and the asylum over which he presides. Dr. Seward’s mind operates scientifically, causing him to balk at supernatural evidence until the moment he sees the vampire Lucy.
Just as enlightenment and rationalism existed alongside supernatural and religious belief in the eighteenth century, science and faith also had a side-by-side relationship in the nineteenth century. Published in 1859, Darwin’s Origin of Species and its theory of evolution inspired fierce debate in the second half of the century. As the sciences (including medicine) became increasingly professionalized and specialized across the century, the gap between scientific leaders and religious leaders widened. In other words, science and medicine increasingly became the sole province of trained specialists like Dr. Seward. Indeed, mental hospitals (or “lunatic asylums” as they were commonly known) like Dr. Seward’s became increasingly prevalent in England during the second half of the nineteenth century. While publicly and privately funded asylums existed before then, much care for the mentally ill took place in homes and through the churches. The assumption that institutionalized medical care was the best way to address mental illness was a distinctly nineteenth-century idea.
Situated within this context, Dr. Seward’s “private lunatic asylum” proves to be a hallmark of the modernity with which the novel struggles to come to terms: institutional, scientific, detached, rationalist. Dr. Seward is perhaps the clearest example of a mind guided entirely by scientific rationalism, dependent on the evidence of his own eyes and loathe to accept supernatural explanations even when the evidence points that way. Ironically, right next door to his asylum is the Carfax estate and chapel, which Dracula makes his home base in England. The chapel embodies the spiritual forces which modern medical men like Dr. Seward reject. In fact, Dr. Seward’s asylum proves powerless to keep out these forces. The men attempt to protect Mina by confining her to the asylum, but Dracula invades the building and attacks her. This attack, then, can also be read as an assault on the philosophies of modern science that the asylum represents. Dr. Seward’s inability to diagnose Renfield, who ultimately admits Dracula into the asylum, further proves this “modern” institution’s powerlessness against “old world” supernatural forces.
The blood transfusions that Van Helsing performs on Lucy offer another example of modern medical advancement. The first recorded successful transfusion of blood between humans took place in England in 1818, making blood transfusions of the kind that Van Helsing performs a distinctly nineteenth century phenomenon. While Van Helsing attempts the latest science to save Lucy’s life, it also becomes clear that blood transfusions alone cannot save her. Van Helsing must also resort to the use of garlic and crucifixes, traditional folk remedies to ward off vampires. Blending modern science with superstition, Van Helsing—not Seward—becomes the novel’s model doctor and the best leader in the fight against Dracula.