Alumni Research

April 27, 2018 at 9:03 am

Benham Publishes Book Chapter on Sympathy and War Literature

English department doctoral candidate Renee Benham

English department alum and post-doctoral fellow Renee Benham

by Kristin Distel

M. Renee Benham’s chapter “The Death of Sympathy in Great War Literature” is part of the medical humanities collection Medicine, Health, and Being Human, edited by Lesa Scholl of the University of Queensland, Australia. This collection is part of the series Routledge Advances in the Medical Humanities, released in May 2018.

Benham, who graduated with her Ph.D. from the College of Arts & Sciences at Ohio University in 2017, is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in the English Department.

“This research has translated to the classroom, where I have taught an online 3060J and 3080J to Ohio University’s nursing students, in which we engage with WWI nursing memoirs,” Benham explains. “Each student examines the role of sympathy and efficiency within their discipline, as well as their own daily activities.”

Green book cover, Medicine, Health, and Being HumanAbstract: This book explores how the medical has defined us: that is, the ways in which perspectives of medicine and health have affected understandings of what it means to be human. Benham’s chapter engages with the increasing cultural estimation of efficiency at the turn of the 20th century and argues that literary portrayals of nursing from 1900-18 mirror the contradictory encouragement of, and discomfort with, the notion of efficiency in broader society.

This emphasis on efficiency effectively downgraded sympathy because it hindered the effectiveness of the medical machine. Texts written before and during the war, including The Red Cross, the official magazine of the British Red Cross and Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) organization, praise efficiency unabashedly even when sympathy is sacrificed. Memoir and novel authors writing after the war, however, especially after 1928, resisted the constant drive for efficiency because they felt it turned them into heartless machines.

In Mary Borden’s memoir The Forbidden Zone (1929) and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), as well as in Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) and Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith (1930), the nurses recognize that abandoning sympathy will make them more efficient, and efficiency is necessary to handle the overwhelming number of wounded men. When they lose sympathy, however, they are turned into soulless machines, and thus lose their own humanity. The debate between sympathy and efficiency continues in medical discourses worldwide.

As the medical profession continues to evolve, these Great War memoirs remind us that abandoning sympathy to obtain efficiency turns us into machines, and sacrifices the very humanity we are trying to save.


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