Rhythmic Histories

Today, circadian biologists are revealing the importance of time and timing to our health. When we eat, when we exercise and when we sleep have wide reaching effects on our metabolic health. While these new insights into the rhythmicity of our bodies are on the cutting edge of science – there is a much longer history of doctors and scientists studying biological rhythms. This subproject of Body Time interrogates the histories of rhythmicity in health – waking and sleeping, feasting and fasting, and changing perspectives on how to use time and timing to optimize our bodies.

Rhythmic Histories focuses on British histories of health and medicine in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When we think of circadian disruption, the blue-lights from our phone screens, the ever-presence of the internet and social media, and the demands of a 24/7 economy often come to mind. However, the Victorians were also keenly aware that the modern world was speeding up around them and effecting their bodies and minds. The expansion of the railways, the invention of the telegraph, the rise of electricity were all perceived to effect the body’s natural rhythms. Doctors and scientists were keenly aware that health relied on regularity and habits of sleeping, eating and exercising – and worried the demands of a modern industrial society were impairing health. I am especially interested in practices of sleep hygiene, medical advice on diet and timing, and the perceived effects of 24/7 working on the body. Areas of research include popular medical texts on sleep and sleep hygiene, eating, mealtime and health, the experiences of shift workers (especially nurses and postal workers), and the health impacts of Daylight Savings Time.

We are also interested in the histories of circadian biology itself – in particular of scientific experiments and protocols which sought to isolate time as a variable. Highly publicized experiments taking place in underground caves and bunkers captured public attention on the body outside of time and represent an important crossroads between the specialisms of sleep research, physiology, circadian biology, and psychology.