I had the great pleasure to participate in the “Fitting for Health: The Economy of Medical Technology in Europe and its Colonies, 1600-1850” conference, held in Paris at the École normale supérieure and the Académie nationale de médecine. The aim of the conference was to bring together a variety of scholars working in various historical periods and geographical areas to explore and discuss the history medical technologies.
As outlined in the mission statement, the conference was to address two major issues:
The medical “life of things”
What was considered instrumental to medicine ? Patients and practitioners have used a wide variety of tools – trusses, plasters, forceps, cutting knives, herniary bandaging, electrical devices, baths, orthopaedic machines, models, tools for diagnosis, up to plants transformed into medical commodities or “medicines”. Some were similar to devices that are still in use today ; others have fallen into oblivion, thus challenging medical museums’ curators who wish to present them before the public. What were the technologies of the early modern patient and practitioner – surgeons, midwives, barbers, nurses, etc. ? To what extent did the early modern medical equipment contribute to the management of health, by patients and/or practitioners and to the redefining of medical knowledge and know-how ? What type of medical trades did they help to set up or to challenge ? How did tools and commodities help redefining medical work ? How did they get into use, and how did they circulate among the medical community ?
Medical technologies, industry and commerce.
How were the products conceived and marketed ? How was the production of medical instrumentation organized ? To what extent had the trade recourse to patenting, the expert evaluation of academies, such as the Académie royale de chirurgie ? Which industrial trades and production sectors did it bring together ? How was it funded ? Did medical instruments’ makers exploit new channels for the retailing of their instruments — such as nineteenth-century French industrial fairs — or use old ones ? What were the routes of medical instruments to individual practitioners, public charities, national armies or to the colonies ?
Over the course of two days, speakers presented and discussed topics on: the supplies of the medical trades; the social context of medical instrumentation; medical marketing; and the consumption and production of medical technologies. The central focus of these papers was based upon the metaphor of the medical marketplace, and each speaker presented an interesting case study attempting to understand the medical economy and management of healthcare. For instance, by examining the case study of a particular drug—whether it’s Peruvaian bark, coca leaves, or quinquina in general—we end up taking about a kind of historical geography of the transference of medical ideas and products across colonies. Botanical expeditions, as narrated by Samir Boumedine (École normale supérieure Lettres et sciences humaines (Lyon)), affected the material conditions of the use of drugs, as did their availability, as outlined in Grégory Bériet’s (CRHIA, Universités de Nantes/ La Rochelle) presentation on how quinine shortage affected and encouraged applied research in naval medicine.
The issue of space was also a theme addressed in the presentations. Claire Jones (University of Leeds) discussed how the close proximity of pharmaceutical companies and surgical instrument-makers to London hospitals declined by 1880, in part to changes to the world economy and national trade; the transformation of these relations had a profound effect on the making of trade catalogues. In a different sense of space, François Zanetti’s (Université de Paris 10-Nanterre) presentation on “electric baths” raises wider questions on the nature of public and private interest in medical technologies; for instance, these baths were often quite large, and needed rearranging of household furniture, rearranging private space and making it public as neighbors visited to use or inspect the baths.
Materials and innovations, common to the history of technology scholarship, were also raised—Chris Evans and Alun Whitey (University of Glanmorgan) discussed steel-using artisans and examined the design of instruments, their manufacturing and marketing. I discussed the intentions of aurists in their making of auriscopes and other aural instruments, taking into consideration how authority and identity played a pivotal part in the presentation of their instruments. Other papers also examined the marketing strategies, creating discourse on how economical and commercial aspects of medicine reconfigured the promotion and adaptation of technologies. Several important issues—such as the “branding” of medical instruments, or the place of quackery, were also raised and discussed.
The conference was housed the first day at the École normale supérieure and the second day at the breathtaking Académie nationale de médecine. I forgot my camera the first day but remembered it the second, and managed to take some shots:
After the conference, participants were invited to take a tour of an anatomy theatre; but alas, since I had an early flight, I didn’t attend. Oh well, maybe next time. The highlight of the conference for me? Meeting and chatting with Colin Jones, whose “le Grand Thomas” paper has long been my favorite piece of historical writing!