Dr Emily Cock (above), an early career research associate at Cardiff University, discusses her research into the historical and regional variations in how physical differences were translated into ‘disabilities’. She is one of ten 2019 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Tell us about yourself

I am currently a Leverhulme early career research associate in the School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University. I completed my studies at the University of Adelaide, and moved to Cardiff in 2017 after spending a year at the University of Winchester, and moving around the UK and US for shorter fellowships and jobs.

I grew up on a citrus and grape farm in rural New South Wales, and miss the fresh fruit, but not working in the heat! In my spare time, I am one of the many university staff who use bread baking as a good counterpoint to the slow progress characteristic of academic life.

What is the area of your research?

My research explores social and cultural histories of medicine, sexuality, and disability in the 17th and 18th centuries. I am currently focusing on experiences and representations of facial disfigurements in Britain and its colonies in Virginia, Massachusetts and Australia. I investigate what facial differences were considered disfiguring and how these varied between and within each region, with regard to assumptions of individual and group identity, disability, violence and legal approaches to disfigurement, gender and sexuality, and developing national and racial boundaries.

My first monograph, Rhinoplasty and the Nose in Early Modern British Medicine and Culture, is coming out with Manchester University Press in September. It explores surgical responses to nose deformity in the 17th and 18th centuries, and most particularly the procedure to reconstruct the nose using skin flaps that was made famous by a Bolognese surgeon, Gaspare Tagliacozzi, in a 1597 book.

After he died in 1599, knowledge of the operation allegedly disappeared until brought anew from India at the end of the 18th century. I’ve tracked the actual persistence of this knowledge, alongside the strange rumours that accompanied it. An important strand of this suggested that the skin graft would actually be sourced from someone else. Therefore, not only do stories engage with the issues about a type of facial disfigurement that was commonly associated with syphilis (a stigmatised disease), but they also worry about the implications of live transplantation between people.

What is the importance of this research?

Showing the historical and regional variations in how physical differences are translated into ‘disabilities’ compels people to think about how we understand the variations and changes in our own and others’ bodies now, and I hope contributes to political and social movements for disability rights and awareness.

In my current work, I try to find the voices of people living with facial difference and learn how they felt about their faces and others’ reactions to them. Today, significant facial disfigurement is recognised as a protected characteristic under the UK Equality Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. And research across the social sciences has demonstrated some of the socially disabling effects of cosmetic disfigurement, and their relationship to questions of identity, belonging, institutions (medicine, the law, schools, religion), and people’s relationships to their own and ideas about the body. What did these relationships look like in other periods?