“Seeing With a Better Eye” Through the MHL

The MHL was kind enough to extend an invitation to guest-post regarding my usage of the MHL in the preparation of The Second Book. In this post, then, I will try to describe The Second Book as best I can, so as to frame the significance of the MHL’s holdings and resources for my work, as well as to describe specifically how I use the MHL in my daily research. Okay, sometimes the research is more like “weekly” or even “biweekly” than daily. . .

The Second Book has a working title of “Truth, Objectivity, and Sight: An Intellectual History of the X-Ray in the U.S. 1896-1945.” Here is a short description taken from the prospectus:

Although historians of science and medicine have not ignored the X-ray, virtually no scholar has utilized an approach drawn from the history of ideas to account for the stunning impact of the X-ray across a huge number of domains, including but not limited to medical, scientific, legal, religious, domestic, and labor paradigms in fin-de-siècle American culture. Focusing in particular on the rise of two intellectual frameworks in late 19th c. America — somaticism (or the birth of the anatomoclinical method) and what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have termed ‘mechanical objectivity’ — the monograph shows how ideas about the meaning of the X-ray explain its astonishing impact, not simply on medicine and science, but on American society itself.

The book is currently under consideration by a university press, and the writing is just about at the halfway point (for a variety of reasons I believe and hope that the second half will come quicker and easier than the first). So, how does the MHL figure in my research for the book?

As I have remarked on several occasions, the MHL is nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for a 19th c. Americanist drawing primarily on the history of ideas. My chief interests in the movement of ideas about health, disease, and illness across social networks and the ways in which those ideas shape practice and action in mid-to-late 19th-early 20th c. U.S. coheres perfectly with a major strength of the MHL collections: 19th and early 20th c. holdings on medical journals and treatises. For example, in tracing the ways in which the emphasis on clinical sight (the “gaze,” if you like Foucault) converged with the rising emphasis on pathological anatomy, an obvious primary source is James Jackson Jr.’s memoirs of his education in Paris in the early 1830s. (For extensive scholarly discussion of this source and its significance, see John Harley Warner’s seminal book). In chapter 1 of the manuscript, I focus primarily on the stethoscope because, while the primary sense most associate with the stethoscope is that of hearing, hearing was merely a means to an end. As Jacalyn Duffin points out, Laennec himself wanted the stethoscope to help him look inside his patients, to “see with a better eye.” And the contexts in which scientific and medical practitioners desired and used the stethoscope support this notion. Following a close reading of Warner’s book, I wanted to examine Jackson’s memoirs to assess specifically the extent to which he links the importance of seeing pathological lesions (and clinically correlating with living patients) to the use of the stethoscope.

The MHL makes this analysis incredibly efficient. I began by simply running a Google search for “James Jackson physician memoirs.” The MHL has a new and improved Full Text Search in beta, but I would be lying if I said that I did not primarily rely on Google’s indexing power. I have been working in the MHL for at least 4-5 years, and my established workflow tends to begin with Google; it is difficult to break research habits, especially where, over time, I have begun to understand what phrases and combinations are likely to return results that feature sources from within the MHL or the larger Internet Archive.

The aforementioned Google search brings me to the MHL in hits number 4 and 5 in the search position:

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Now, because I am intentionally looking for the source within the MHL, I am admittedly in a different position from many other Internet searchers; I am essentially using Google for the intended purpose of locating sources within the MHL. Once I am within the MHL, the “fun” really begins. First, I absolutely love the MHL interface itself. It is so easy to manipulate the size of the text, I find myself reading sources online with greater frequency, even though I am one who often prefers the physical text itself. Second, and related, I used to download PDFs from MHL, use optical character recognition technology to make the source full-text searchable, and find that for which I was looking. But the interface is so clean and easy to use, I simply use the full-text search online within the source itself. Searching for “stethoscop*” pulls up the following, with a pin marking the point in the text that is likely to be of interest (Note that using the asterisk matters, as the search engine will look for any potential word that begins with “stethoscope,” therein finding variations such as “stethoscopic” or “stethoscopes,” etc.):

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By hovering the cursor over the pin, a lovely preview of the text pops up, enabling me to scan the hit quickly to discern whether it merits full read of the page. As is clear from the text itself, Jackson’s words reveal a fascinating convergence between the senses of hearing and sight in context of the stethoscope, both as to the patients he wishes to “see” and the use of stethoscopic sounds to map the interior of the chest cavity, in particular:

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Although the subject of the book is the X-ray, I argue in it that we cannot really understand the ideas that help animate the social and cultural significance of the X-ray without apprehending ideas about truth, authenticity, and the construction of scientific knowledge that relate to 19th c. imaging techniques in general. Explaining how and why the stethoscope is really a kind of imaging device, and documenting this via the primary sources, is an important take for the beginning of the book, and the MHL is incredibly helpful in this regard.

Of course, this is just one example! I have used an analogous process hundreds of times in the course of my research, especially in some of the later chapters on which I have been working, which make extensive use of some of the amazing medico-legal sources held within the MHL collections. Because the middle chapters of the book document the movement of important ideas between expert and lay cultures, using the MHL as a pole from which to search for and calibrate useful sources drawn from lay and public cultures has also proven exceedingly helpful. But I will reserve discussion of this latter point for possible future posts!

Thoughts, comments, questions?

A/V from the Library

Hit “play” above or follow this link to watch Spirochaeta pallida and its destruction by the defensive bodies of the organism (1931).

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Why Digital Collections, Why Now?

The Medical Heritage Library and its digitizing partners exist to promote and provide access to resources in the history of medicine. That history says much about who we are today—about how we practice medicine, about how we view the body, about the nature of embodied experience and what it means to be? Rare books and journals, but also more ephemeral items like pamphlets and even films are made available to the public without cost. But why digitize these items at all? Why not just leave them in the libraries of which they are a part? I’ve heard the question asked in a variety of ways and in different venues; frequently, it’s a well-meaning query about the value of brick-and-mortar institutions. And, as someone who works for such an institution, I can understand the sentiment. Even so, there are excellent reasons for digitizing our collections—and for doing it right now.

As Research Associate and Guest Curator, I spend every day surrounded by unique and hard to access historical material. The Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum, located in Cleveland, Ohio, has over 150,000 artifacts, an incredible rare book collection, and affiliation with both a medical library and a university library. When I teach the history of anatomy, I go to the Stecher Room and fetch Vesalius, or to the stacks downstairs and retrieve Gautier. When researching the history of reproduction for an exhibit, I can easily access and peruse William Hunter’s Gravid Uterus. I have, at my fingertips, a world of ideas. But it was not always so.

A few years ago, I took a position at a small university in Minnesota. One of the first hurdles I encountered as an eighteenth century historian of literature and medicine was a lack of primary sources. In the midst of turning dissertation chapters into articles, I suddenly found repeated and seemingly insurmountable obstacles between me and my sources, not just in retrieving them, but even in the search for them. My PhD had been built around those sources, and around the search engines of databases like Eighteenth Century Collections Online and for the first time I realized the apparent desert that existed beyond my alma mater’s generous holdings. In this, I was not alone.

Many researchers find themselves seriously handicapped by issues of accessibility. They struggle to surmount these difficulties in a variety of ways, including travel to other collections. I was, in fact, encouraged to do so by my institution—and yet, like many researchers, scholars, and even tenure-track faculty, I found the monetary resources very thin for such activities. Why not apply for travel funds from the libraries and collections themselves? I was lucky in receiving several travel grants, including one from the Bakken Museum and one from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (both contributing partners to the MHL). Yet, library collections are also under pressure financially; not every important collections can support researchers—and those that do cannot support all who apply. As academics, librarians, and curators, we pride ourselves on avenues of access, on the free circulation of information, on the democratic ability for all people to engage with history, especially the history of medicine. In practice, however, such things are more and more difficult to achieve. As a scholar, I had to rely on what I could find online in (usually frustrating) digitized book searches. Discovering the Internet Archive smoothed the way for continued research, and the Medical Heritage Library further supports this mission by specifically providing many thousands of works specifically in medical history. Why digitize collections? Because this is our medical heritage—and the digital is sometimes the only means of sharing it.

Let’s return, though, to the second question: why now? There is an urgency to these projects that many recognize, but fewer understand. Digitization, though sometimes perceived as a threat to existing collections, may also be the best means of saving them. The most obvious way this occurs is through the careful cataloguing, in print and image, of fragile history. There’s only so much we can do to preserve our collections; some have survived thousands of years, but the reality is that they will continue to degrade, to fade, to become unreadable. In my office at the Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry journal, we have a pair of brilliant black-and-white photos. They depict the inside of an excavation in Egypt, where columns are bright with art work. Those columns are now empty, blank, worn away by sand and wind that entered after opening the tomb. These photos are all that remain—and so it may be with some of our treasured artifacts today. Arguments abound that, of course, even the digital will degrade, and probably faster. It’s true, but the digital also provides us the opportunity to do something more: to disseminate.

People cannot come to a library or museum if they never hear about it’ existence. The Dittrick Museum is no exception. We have been called a “hidden gem” and a “best kept secret” in our own community. To raise awareness, we’ve been hosting events, inviting classes to join us, and renovating for a more user-friendly experience. But we’ve been working on the digital, too. Our archivist and photographer are working to add our collection to a searchable system, and I—with chief curator James Edmonson—have begun the grant-writing process for an ambitious digitization of artifact and story for an interactive display. Other museums and libraries are doing the same (the Wellcome Library and Collection is an excellent example—and not surprisingly, also a principal MHL contributor). By sharing our collections digitally we reach a larger audience. We attract new visitors. We build a community of like-minded people, of scholars and researchers and curious minds young and old. In a time of tight budgets, it’s ever more important to help the wider world see and understand the relevance of libraries and other collections. In sharing this history, as the Medical Heritage Library and partners have done, we also provide the means of preserving it.

Images from the Library

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From Carl A. Mense’s Handbuch der Tropenkrankheiten (1905).

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Digital Highlights: The Form of the Face

The physiognomical manual of John Caspar Lavater provides rules for judging by the phsyiognomy: is someone’s nose a little to the left? perhaps their eyebrows are not quite symmetrical? or their ears are set far back on their head? These are all guides to their inner character, how they are likely to behave in almost any situation.

Lavater’s handbook provides not only visual illustrations so you can match the face against the characteristic, it also promises “One Hundred Physiognomonical [sic] Rules” to help you detect obstinacy, worthless insignificance, hypocrisy, and voluptuaries among others.

Flip through the pages of Lavater’s guidebook below or follow this link to read Essays on physiognomy (1853).

MHL Housekeeping

This is a brief mid-week post to remind you of two upcoming things.

1. The MHL full-text search will be unavailable between October 24th and October 26th (this weekend) due to a hardware change-over at Harvard. The full collection will be available as usual via the Internet Archive.

This will only affect the full-text search and the search should be back in operation on Monday morning.

2. The countdown to the close of the 2014 User Survey starts next week! If you haven’t already, please take ten minutes out of your day and fill it out. We want to get a sense of how you found us, what you use (or don’t use), and how you use it so we can plan our future development.

It’s very short (we promise!) and an incredible amount of help to us to have your input.

Images from the Library

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From Sir Patrick Manson’s Tropical diseases: a manual of diseases of warm climates (1914).

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

 

Digital Highlights: Measure Twice…

We’re well into October now — in the United States, we’re looking forward at November and December which, for many of us, involve a bout of cooking unlike anything seen in the rest of the year.

To help you out with this, we offer up this handy guide.

Click through the pages of A.T. Simmons’ and Ernest Stenhouse’s The science of common life (1912).

And if you haven’t done it yet, please take five minutes out of your Friday and fill out our quickie user survey!

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

Images from the Library

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From volume 12, number 2 of The Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (1907).

As always, for more from the Medical Heritage Library, please visit our full collection!

MHL Partner History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group Celebrates 21st Anniversary

The History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group at Queen Mary’s University, London, joined the MHL in 2013; this fall, they are celebrating their 21st birthday.

The research group, funded by the Wellcome Trust, was set up in 1990 to develop and strengthen links between members of the biomedical research community and medical historians.

The group’s mission is to promote and facilitate the study of the history of contemporary medicine and medical science. It hosts a series of meetings to discuss recent medical history, which include a wide range of people who were “there at the time”. These are all published in a regular series and are made freely available to download.

To mark its 21st anniversary, the group has produced a special volume entitled: ‘Monoclonal Antibodies to Migraine: Witnesses to Modern Biomedicine, an A-Z.’

Sir Mark Walport, UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor and author of the foreword, said:

“Governments around the world obsess about how they can ensure that basic research is turned into human benefit… but if you really want to discover how to innovate, read this volume. This is a master class in how to innovate in medicine.”

Tilli Tansey OBE, Professor of the History of Modern Medical Sciences and head of the research group, described the anthology edition as “a remarkable milestone for what began as a modest undertaking”:

“The Wellcome Trust’s History of Twentieth Century Medicine Group held its first Witness Seminar 21 years ago, to examine the events behind the headlines and accolades associated with major medical discoveries. The objective was simple: to hear the voices and perspectives of a wide group of people who were involved in those discoveries. That guiding principle is still at the heart of our work.”

“From that first meeting in 1993, we’ve now organised more than 60 Witness Seminars, attended by more than 1400 people, and most are published as free-to-use transcripts. This book is designed to capture some of those highlights and bring to the fore voices and perspectives that might otherwise have been lost,”

said Professor Tansey.

Clare Matterson, Director of Culture & Society at the Wellcome Trust, adds:

“The Witness Seminars are a wonderful way of capturing recent history in the words of those directly involved, and have created important resources for use now and for many years to come. We are delighted to celebrate the achievements of the History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group, and are so proud to have supported them for 21 years, and counting.”

Described by medical historian Irvine Loudon as “oral history at its best”, the Witness Seminars continue to tell the stories behind some of the most transformative medical milestones in recent history.

All papers and records collected from 21 years of Witness Seminars are deposited with archives and manuscripts in the Wellcome Library in London. They are also freely available online, including through the Medical Heritage Library website.

More information, including a digital copy of the anniversary anthology, is available on the History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group website, and the Wellcome Trust blog features a post from Professor Tansey.

Adapted from Wellcome Trust announcement of September 26, 2014.

(Re)Introducing Michelle DiMeo

Profile Pic crop Oct 2014Previously a member of the MHL’s Governance Group, Michelle DiMeo is now the newest member of the MHL’s Scholarly Advisory Committee. Last month, Michelle became Curator of Digital Collections at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, where she will be overseeing the creation of CHF’s first digital repository and online collection. Prior to this, she was the S. Gordon Castigliano Director of Digital Library Initiatives in the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, when she served as the College Library’s MHL representative. Michelle is currently the Principal Investigator on the MHL’s almost-completed NEH grant to digitize over 1 million pages of 19th-century American medical journals. In December 2013, she co-organized the symposium “Emerging Roles for Historical Medical Libraries: Value in the Digital Age” as part of the College Library’s 225th Anniversary celebration, the proceedings for which will be published as the Fall 2014 special issue of RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts and Cultural Heritage co-edited with Jeffrey S. Reznick of the National Library of Medicine.

In addition to her work in libraries, Michelle is an interdisciplinary historian who works on early modern science and medicine, primarily lay-practitioners and domestic remedies. She is co-editor (with Sara Pennell) of Reading and Writing Recipe Books: 1550-1800 (Manchester University Press, 2013)  and has published essays in the Intellectual History Review, Huntington Library Quarterly, and several edited collections of essays. Michelle also oversees the First Monday Library Chat series on The Recipes Project blog and has taught at Lehigh University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Warwick, where she completed her PhD. Her current book-in-progress is an intellectual biography of Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615-91), sister of the famous chemist Robert Boyle. This will be the first book-length study of one of the most important intellectual women in seventeenth-century Europe. In addition to supporting the experiments of her brother (with whom she lived for the last 23 years of their lives), Lady Ranelagh had her own international network and esteemed reputation. Using hundreds of letters, recipe books and diaries, this book will document Ranelagh’s involvement in the Hartlib circle, her contributions to Robert Boyle’s achievements, and her involvement in fields as diverse as natural philosophy, medicine, politics and religion.

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