Working with Nineteenth-Century Medical and Health Periodicals: Conference Report

Organised in conjunction with two Oxford based projects, one on the ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ and the other on ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’, this one day conference probed the meaning, value and content of the nineteenth century medical periodical. With panels on methods; the periodical and its audiences; women in medical periodicals; as well as libraries and medical periodicals, the conference offered a useful mix of empirical research, methodological reflection and practical advice for those wishing to make use of this invaluable source.

lancet
Image from http://discovermedicallondon.com/medical-discoverers-blog/

Listening to the papers, it quickly became apparent that defining the nineteenth century medical/health periodical is not as straight forward as at first may appear. As Jonathan Topham pointed out, the characteristics of the modern medical periodical, including such features as peer-review and a specialist focus, were not necessarily to be found in nineteenth century journals. Periodical have changed over time, and these had a variety of different purposes beyond the communication of scientific information. Journals contained advertisements for patented and proprietary medicines and endorsements for other kinds of ‘health foods’ like Bovril. According to Lesley Steinitz, knowledge about such products was generated not only in the medical literature, but in other publications too, including the popular press.

bovril

Image from http://www.fotolibra.com/

If the nature of the periodical was far from stable, so too was the meaning of ‘medical’. Medicine frequently overlapped with moral concerns, as was made clear by Malin Gregerson in her paper on Scandinavian medical missionaries. There was a good deal of overlap between curing the body and curing the soul. As the medical profession developed over the course of the nineteenth century, these issues did not disappear, but were re-formulated. Nowhere was this more evident than in the ways in which women feature in medical periodicals. Whether it was to debate the issue of female doctors, to provide care for female patients living under purdah in India, or to offer health advice to young women, medical and moral concerns could rarely be separated.

Such difficulties should not, however, deter historians and others from using medical periodicals. As Michelle DenBeste noted, for those working in areas where archival sources may be sparse or non-existent, the medical periodical provides an invaluable source. Accessing such sources should, in theory, be getting easier. The growing digitisation of nineteenth century medical periodicals opens these up to a wider audience and to new kinds of research. Novel tools, such as text-mining, will make the analysis of vast amounts of material possible. Difficult to use sources, such as the bound editions of Chemist and Druggist, are being made available to a wide community of scholars who are able to ask different kinds of questions of such material.

chemist

Pages of The Chemist & Druggist, 25th February 1893. Image from Wellcome Images.

Digitisation, though, is not a panacea. As Virginia Berridge and I pointed out in our paper based on a study on addiction across Europe, digitisation of non-English sources is rare, making comparative work difficult. Even when a large corpus of digital material does exist, how can we make the best use of this? As a number of speakers pointed out, there is a tendency to launch a ‘hit and run’ raid on digital sources, gathering the information we need for a specific project but perhaps missing the wider context in which this material was produced. There is a danger that the digitisation of sources may narrow our field of interest, as other non-digital sources languish in the basement or are thrown away.

Yet, with events like this one, which brought together historians, medical humanities scholars, archivists and librarians, such pitfalls may yet be avoided.

Alex Mold, 23.06.2015


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