Conference Report: AAHM New Haven, May 2015

At their annual conference in New Haven, CT the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM) celebrated its 90th birthday. Back in 1925 it would have been almost impossible for me to go: transatlantic travel took weeks not hours; the history of medicine was in its infancy and few (if any) women were working in the field. The changing demographics of the AAHM conference were something that the chair of the local organising committee, John Harley Warner, alluded to in his opening remarks. When the AAHM conference was held in New Haven in 1954, just two women spoke, a situation that had hardly improved by 1967 when the conference next rolled in to New Haven; there were five female speakers. Perhaps this is not all that surprising given that Yale only admitted female students in 1969!

AAHM 90th Birthday Cake. Photo by Alex Mold

Fast-forward 90 years, and the AAHM conference is thankfully much more gender-balanced. Attendees came from across North America, Europe and beyond, and with five parallel sessions over two and a half days spanning a huge range of time period, place and topic, the conference looks and sounds very different to the small meeting of physicians first convened in 1925. The programme covered themes and locations as wide-ranging as the uterus in Ancient Greece to computer games in the twenty-first century, as well as two plenary sessions and tours of the Medical Historical Library, the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale campus. I took advantage of the latter, and it was fascinating to hear about the history of this illustrious institution. The tour encompassed the best of Yale’s faux gothic architecture and its modern buildings too, such as the Beinecke rare book library, which has holdings including a Gutenberg bible, a pen used by Abraham Lincoln and a signed still from Disney’s Peter Pan.

Inside the Beinecke Library. Photo by Alex Mold

The academic programme was equally diverse. It would be hard to do it justice in a short blog, so I will confine myself to three ‘Cs’: circulation, creation and complexity.

Circulation. The conference opened with a plenary session on re-situating biomedical research. Drawing on her work on biomedicine in Mexico, Gabriela Soto Lavega encouraged us to rethink the location of biomedical research, to look outside the laboratory and focus on local, even banal settings. Knowledge circulation was not uni-directional, and was just as likely to flow from the hammock of a research subject to a lab bench as the other way around. A different kind of circulation was at work in Warwick Anderson’s paper, which considered the interaction between ecology and epidemiology in tropical medicine. As pathogens circulated within the environment and through bodies, so too did various kinds of knowledge.

The first plenary session. Photo by Alex Mold

Creation. Much ink has been spilled on the extent to which disease categories are socially constructed, but a fresh approach to such debates was offered by a session entitled ‘Creating Autism’. Rather than focus on the construction of autism per se, speakers explored the condition from different perspectives. According to Emer Lucey, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to describe autistic children as unusually beautiful, and their beauty was seen as a way of distinguishing between autism and other developmental disabilities. Jeff Baker demonstrated that autism began life as a symptom of childhood schizophrenia rather than a separate condition. Michael Yudell suggested that the history of autism has a practical value too, and was a useful way to bridge the divide between history and ethics. Bonnie Evans spoke about the more recent history of the condition, highlighting how both genetics and debates about children’s rights intersected to create a new approach to autism.

Reception and 90th Birthday Party in the Yale Commons. Photo by Alex Mold

Complexity. Historians love to say that their work is complex, but a different kind of complexity is facing the field with the challenges and opportunities presented by big data. Simon Chaplin discussed the difficulties encountered by the Wellcome Library in creating a digital library for the history of medicine. The volume of the material potentially available means that new tools and approaches will be required in order to make sense of it all, a process that requires the input of historians just as much as IT experts and librarians. Elizabeth Toon and her colleagues are doing exactly this, by aiming to create a semantic search engine to use on the digitised London Medical Officer of Health reports and the British Medical Journal. A tool that goes beyond simple word searches will help researchers to find relationships between terms and concepts that they would not necessarily have been looking for. Big data, as Tom Ewing demonstrated, also gives us the ability to look across a much wider range of sources than would have been possible in the past, but once the material has been located, close reading of individual sources is often still required.

big data
Obligatory picture illustrating big data complexity. From

Documentary analysis at this level is a technique that our predecessors from 1925 would have been familiar with, even if the possibilities presented by big data were then the stuff of science fiction. Perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we think? Although it will take a miracle of modern science to enable me to come back in another 90 years to find out!

Alex Mold
Centre for History in Public Health