Classics Professor Studies the Experience of Pain

November 22, 2013

Sarah Scullin

By Nicole Acton

What is pain? How are we conditioned to experience pain? Does everyone feel pain the same way? Is pain a reliable symptom for diagnosis?

Sarah Scullin, visiting assistant professor of classics, focuses her research on these questions. She is particularly interested in the subjectivity of pain and how pain has been experienced through time.

"What I experience as painful, and how I experience pain is very much influenced by my culture," Scullin says. "What's more, despite the fact that we acknowledge the subjectivity of pain, we still insist on basing much of our medical care on the symptom of pain."

Sarah ScullinBy examining ancient medical texts, Scullin has gained an understanding of the way that pain was perceived and treated in ancient Greek culture, allowing her to contrast the medicine of antiquity with modern science. Scullin's primary source for research has been the Hippocratic Corpus, a body of 60 anonymously written ancient Greek medical texts. These texts have led Scullin to draw interesting parallels with modern medicine.

"It was acceptable practice in antiquity to tie a laboring woman to a ladder and drop the ladder to the ground in an effort to shake the baby out," says Scullin. "Today we accept this as strange and even barbaric, but the history of modern obstetrics has been filled with one realization after another that common practice was incredibly harmful for both babies and mothers."

For example, women were routinely sedated to the point of a blackout, a practice that was abandoned in the 1940s because of the harmful effects on both mother and child. "When one looks at the increasing medicalization of childbirth in the context of this broader history, it should give us pause," says Scullin.

In addition to teaching courses in Greek, Latin, and classics, Scullin led a class about women's experience in classical antiquity. The class inspired her to think about certain aspects of her research in a new light.

"I've had stimulating and energizing conversations about my research with my students, both in and out of the classroom," says Scullin. "I especially enjoy discussing issues that are still a problem today, such as the role of cultural expectations of gendered response to pain -- Knox students are very savvy about these kinds of issues."

Scullin helps students prepare for finals