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Hereditary disease

Four hundred years ago, Robert Burton wrote an epic attempt to understand the universal experience of melancholy. What can it teach us today?

In 1621, Robert Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy. It was the first attempt in the modern western world to understand and categorise causes, symptoms and treatments of that universal human experience.

In this episode, writer Amy Liptrot visits the place where Burton was buried in 1640 – Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. She meets Professor John Geddes, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford.

They explore Burton’s view that melancholy is ‘an hereditary disease’. Are genetics involved in depression and other mental illnesses and how does that work? Amy is curious to know if her former struggle with alcoholism is connected with her dad’s bipolar disorder.

John Geddes reflects on how The Anatomy has inspired him throughout his life as a psychiatrist and researcher into mood disorders, since picking up a copy as a junior doctor in Sheffield.

As Burton drew on the writing of others and made a patchwork of texts within his Anatomy of Melancholy, each episode ends with a modern-day contribution for a new and updated Anatomy of Melancholy.

In this episode, Jonathan Flint offers John Dowland (English composer, 1563 – 1626).

Simon Russell Beale brings the voice of Robert Burton to life with extracts from The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Presenter: Amy Liptrot
Reader: Simon Russell Beale
Producer: Ruth Abrahams
Series consultant: John Geddes

A Whistledown production for Radio 4

Available now

14 minutes

Last on

Tue 12 May 2020 13:45