Dr Catherine Oakley

Postdoctoral Research and Engagement Fellow

Summary: Cultural history of medicine, health, work, and the body in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries; ageing; interdisciplinary medical humanities; popular fiction; silent film.

Location: Baines Wing


I obtained my BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford before moving to the University of York to study for an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature and Culture. I completed my AHRC-funded PhD in English and Related Literature at York in 2016. Between September 2013 and January 2014, I was a British Council Research Fellow at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I joined the University of Leeds in October 2016 as a part-time Research Assistant on the Wellcome Trust Seed Award-funded project "Pasts, Presents, and Futures of Medical Regeneration". I am currently Postdoctoral Research and Engagement Fellow on the AHRC-funded project "Endless Possibilities of Rejuvenation: Defying Ageing, Defining Youth in Britain, 1919-1948", led by Dr James Stark

Research Interests

I am a cultural historian of medicine, with interdisciplinary research interests across the history of medicine, labour history, literary studies, and film studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My research projects explore material cultures of work, health, and the body across the life course, tracing discursive traffic across scientific and cultural spheres that shapes new forms of knowledge in these areas. My work draws on methodologies from critical theory – and cultural materialism in particular – to reach across disciplinary boundaries and to include marginal, "popular", and archival materials that have not received close scholarly attention. 

Current and Forthcoming Research Projects

My current work as postdoctoral research and engagement fellow on the "Endless Possibilities of Rejuvenation" project examines changing attitudes towards ageing and the concept of anti-ageing in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. I am working with three project partners – the Boots Company Archive, the Thackray Medical Museum, and the National Trust – to develop resources and events through which audiences beyond the university can engage with the histories of rejuvenation and their contemporary relevance. I am also working on a journal article for a special issue of the journal Palgrave Communications on C.P. Snow's anonymously-published 1933 speculative rejuvenation novel New Lives for Old. This will draw on new archival findings to explore the circumstances surrounding the book's publication and suppression, its meditations on the social function of science, and its androcentrism.

In addition, I am writing a monograph based on my doctoral research into the emergence of a conceptual understanding of the body as a living economy of "energies" across the decades 1870-1930. The book will examine the ways in which the term "energy" came to be redefined and understood in relation to the human body during this period across both medicine and culture, in accordance with the new productivist logic of the second industrial revolution. Drawing selectively on a wide range of primary sources – scientific writing, popular science periodicals, newspaper commentaries, literary fiction, and silent film – it will analyse visual and text materials that represent bodily energy as the basis of corporeal functionality, vitality, and a quantifiable capacity for work. My research is the first to integrate scientific and cultural forms to illuminate how literary and filmic texts intersected with medical and commercial designs for the ideal body of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century capitalism: energized, productive, appetitive, and youthful. I argue that a critical reading of bodily energy reveals that discourses of degeneration are only part of the story of the human body at this time, and I offer new perspectives on regeneration and rejuvenation to re-frame this history.

Public Engagement

In addition to my work with project partners on the AHRC project, I am also Project Lead on a National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) Museum-University Partnership Initiative (MUPI) seed award titled "Workplace Cultures and Working Lives in the South Yorkshire Manufacturing Industries, 1850-1950". I am working with curators at Doncaster Heritage Services and Museums Sheffield to conduct a thematically-focused collaborative appraisal of their collections and archival materials under this broad topic. The project is designed to provide the museums with a deeper understanding of the social and cultural contexts of their collections and to contribute to future outcome planning. From an academic perspective, the project seeks to facilitate a sustained collaboration with local heritage and museum partners and the communities they serve, and to inform future research agendas in the Humanities.

I have presented my research to public audiences as part of the Cheltenham Science Festival and the Being Human Festival of the Humanities, and have worked with a range of local and national external partners to support public engagement events, including York Museums Trust, York Theatre Royal, Hyde Park Picturehouse, BFI Southbank, and English Heritage.

I am an Engagement Excellence Fellow at Leeds for the academic year 2017-2018.


"The Precarious Postdoc: Interdisciplinary Research and Casualised Labour in the Humanities and Social Sciences" (With Dr Sophie Jones). Project Short for Working Knowledge: Transferable Methodology for Interdisciplinary Research (Forthcoming, Spring 2018)

'Generic Hybridism and Hegemonic Masculinity in C.P. Snow's suppressed Medical Rejuvenation novel New Lives for Old (1933)' (Forthcoming)

'Towards Cultural Materialism in the Medical Humanities: The Case of Blood Rejuvenation'. BMJ Medical Humanities. Published Online First: 11 May 2017. Open Access (available here).

'"Disruptive Energies": Electrotherapy and Early Fiction Films in Europe and America, 1907-1911.' Disability and Visual Culture. Special issue of the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies 9.3 (October 2015), pp. 295-312. 

(Reviews) 'Neurological Disorders on Film at the 58th BFI London Film Festival' and 'Lynette Wallworth's Tender: On Taking Ownership of Dying and Death'. BMJ Medical Humanities. Online First: 16 November 2014.

Recent Presentations

"Museum-University Partnerships: What Have We Learned?". Shared Panel, NCCPE Engage 2017, Bristol (Dec 2017)

"Doing Interdisciplinary Research (By Accident or Design)". Interdisciplinarity in Practice: Medical Humanities Research Workshop for PGRs, University of Leeds (Sept 2017)

"Slow-Workers, Malingers, and Tramps: Cultural Mediations of Unproductive Bodies in Britain, 1880-1912". Shared panel on "Crises of Labour Power: Work, Health, and the Body in Industrial Modernity". British Studies in a Broken World, Modern British Studies Conference, University of Birmingham (July 2017)

 "Cultural Materialism and the History of Medicine: Energy and the Body, 1870-1925". Shared panel with British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) on "Literature, Science, and In-Between". English: Shared Futures Conference, Newcastle (July 2017)

"Entropy and Atrophy: Ageing and the Conceptual Metaphor of Energy in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries". Invited Paper, Defining Old Age: Literature, Psychology, Law, SAMKUL symposium, University of Bergen (June 2017). Video available here.

Advisory Roles

Vitae, "One Size Does Not Fit All: Arts and Humanities Doctoral and Early Career Researchers' Professional Development Survey"(Spring 2017)