On Sharing #histmed Images

For those who follow me on Twitter or the FTHOQ Facebook page, you already know I share a lot of images on the history of medicine. I’ve come across many of these images while browsing through online archives collection data for my research on experiences of hearing and hearing loss in twentieth-century America. I’m particularly interested in the cultural history of deafness from a medical standpoint and frequently find myself drawn to all sorts of representations of hearing, sound, and artefacts. Sometimes I come across a new digital archive by clicking on a link on the one I’m already looking through, and off I go, spending hours carefully scrolling through images and records.

I initially started sharing images on the history of medicine (#histmed on Twitter) as I conducted research in London on materials related to my dissertation. I expanded my postings when I started collecting materials for my course on the History of Medicine. I kept a file on my desktop of remarkable sources of images and objects I hoped one day to share with my students. There were many that never made the cut for lectures and I wanted a platform to share them—hence, I started posting on my Twitter account and later created the FTHOQ Facebook page to post additional details that went beyond the 140-character limit. I aim to post as much details on sources and archive repositories as I can, but sometimes I find great things on Google Images that have no additional data and I post the image in the hopes someone else can fill in the blanks.


Sharing images has been a great way for me to participate in fruitful conversations about cultural frameworks of health and healing. At the back of my mind, I’m overly aware of the risks of decontextualizing these images and using them for “entertainment.” Daniel Goldberg drew my attention to a great post written by Richard Barnett for the WellcomeLibrary blog. Barnett discusses some of the ethical concerns he encountered while writing his book, The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration (2014), particularly on the implications of looking at pictures of people’s suffering and diseased bodies. Is it appropriate? Another form of entertainment? Barnett raises crucial issues that I think all historians should think about when we share images of bodies with an audience. I might say that I share these images—and some that even I find gruesome enough to warrant a “WARNING” or “SENSITIVE” prelude on my tweet—as a way to educate my audience on the horrors of medical practice, but even I cannot ignore the shock element that is clearly embedded in that tweet. Especially when it comes with a warning note.

Barnett expresses: “I might comfort myself with the thought that I am deepening my readers’ understanding of these images by setting them in context.” Too often, I’ve come across images that have been grossly misinterpreted or miscategorised. Many more do not identify the source or provide any context. Setting them in context almost provides merit for sharing them: I’m not just passing them around, but trying to address their historical place and value. The most interesting discussions and that arise from sharing these images come from my audience, whose inquisitive questions inspires me to ignore my to-do list for the day and dig up as much information I can about a particular image. But what happens when we don’t provide the context of a particular image? Have we stripped away its meaning? The popularity of twitter handles like The Retronaut or HistoryPics indicates that people love looking at the past; but too often errors are pointed out.

I haven’t kept a precise analysis of the images I’ve posted and how they were shared as an indicator of how people are “reading” the images and learning from them. My audience is not wide enough for that. But I have been aware of the thoughts that go behind my postings and how I’ve been aware not to offend, decontextualize, or even muddle the historical merit of these images. Last summer I kept a schedule based on particular themes I would post in relation to the research I intended to do. For instance, I would post images on epidemic diseases in India one week, prosthetic artifacts the next, and so forth. I had scheduled surgical amputations the same week the Boston Marathon bombings occurred. Of course none of these images were shared at that time; it seemed cruel, insensitive, and above all, opportunistic.

My favourite images to share are the ones that make us think twice about the authority of medicine. Products developed by “quack” doctors, illogical remedies, strange and outrageous technologies, and the theatre of surgery. These images reminds me how much medicine has changed, how the rules of practice has transformed, and how people in the past thought about their bodies, their health, and sought out explanations. These historical experiences with health and illness are captured in images, These images, as Barnett writes,

are, to borrow a phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss, good to think with…They should shock us, move us, jolt us out of any sense of complacency over our individual or collective well-being; something would be wrong if they did not. They are a magnificent historical and aesthetic resource, and a record of human suffering and of attempts to understand and to relieve it. We would be all the poorer if they were concealed; equally, they should not become mere visual shorthand for a kitsch, knowing and emptily ironised attitude to sickness, suffering and death.

 I’m glad people like how I share images. The repositories I come across are wonderful and as a scholar, I’m thankful to all the individuals who have digitized these images, allowing me to get a better glimpse into the past.




Monday Series: “In the Guise of a Friend” V

Conclusions: A Debt to Alexander the Aggressor?

The deaf community was never at ease with Bell’s eugenics attempts for normalization. When the ABA’s Committee on Eugenics drafted a bill limiting marriage between “undesirables,” the deaf fought back. At his presidential address to the National Association of the Deaf, George Veditz declared that “[i]t is evident that the one person upon whom we must cast the odium of having hated the deaf into this category is Dr. Bell, whom his wealth has rendered the most powerful, and his hobby-ridding propensity the most subtle, because he comes in the guise of a friend.”[1] Yet as John Tabak points out, it is important to acknowledge that the history of the deaf relationship with eugenics is extremely complicated. While many writers describe the deaf as staunch opponents to the eugenics movement, Tabak argues that deaf organizations, especially the NAD, did not oppose eugenics in principle. The NAD was often supportive of arguments for restricting the reproductive rights of the “degenerates,” but their “objections to eugenics arose when [they] found the Deaf included with those same classes. The Deaf, [they] argued, were different.”[2] What the NAD did object to was the paternalistic inclinations from hearing men in influential positions.

Even Bell recognized the differences. He assumed by educating the deaf of the consequences of deaf intermarriages and promoting scientific validation for oralism, he could aggressively protect the deaf community from the same fate that befell other social groups targeted by eugenicists. Eugenics gave Bell a powerful tool for persuading the deaf towards normalization. The deaf were different because they could normalize, and thus, they should normalize. While Bell underestimated the deaf community’s devotion to their own culture, he also failed to grasp that the deaf would intermarry whether or not they used sign language or spoke English. Additionally, as Harlan Lane points out, eugenics measures such as sterilization, social diffusion, or even legislation on marriages would be ineffective, since due to the unpredictable nature of hereditary deafness, the number of deaf children would not seriously decline.[3]

Bell’s work on eugenics and oralism demonstrates how important it is to understand the complex relationship between scientific research and social policy. The potent forces of an ideologically-driven science are powerful enough to drastically influence social attitudes towards a social group, especially a marginalized one. Whether historians of deaf history or historians of eugenics view Bell’s role in the eugenics movement as an active or passive one, Bell nevertheless played a significant role in shaping both the social perception of deafness and the need for normalization within the deaf community. Yet Bell’s arguments on deaf intermarriage was shaped largely in response to the construction of deaf people, and his views adeptly transformed as from his nineteenth century fears about a “deaf variety,” to his twentieth century scientific inclination for normalizing the deaf through oralism and integration. Bell may have neverthless shielded the deaf from the extreme measures of negative eugenics, but he did so in a way that urged for the dissemination of the deaf community; for this, he was vilified.

[1] Veditz, quoted in Lane, “A Chronology of the Repression of Sign Language,” p.150.

[2] J. Tabak, Significant Gestures: A History of American Sign Language, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), p.84.

[3] Lane, “Do Deaf People have a Disability?” p.287.


UTSIC Website Active!

I’m pleased to announce that the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection Website is now active! The first post is an essay, “A Short History of the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, written by Erich Weidenhammer (IHPST, University of Toronto) & Michael Da Silva (University of Toronto Faculty of Law). The post is a reprint of the original article, published in the “Opinions” section of Spontaneous Generations vol 4, no.1 (2010) 255-261.

UTSIC has lots planned for contextualizing the various instruments in the collection and breathing life into their stories (of the historical past). Posts on the homepage will provide a narrative overlay about the UTSIC collection, the instruments, as well as the institutional history of science and technology at the University of Toronto.


Monday Series: A Disease with no Remedy II



Jan Steen (1626-1679). The Doctor's Visit (1658-1662). Oil on panel. 49 × 42


The word “tuberculosis” was not introduced as a classification term until 1834 by the German physician Johann Lukas Schönlein (1793-1864),[1] though it was first used by the British physician Richard Morton (1637-1698) in 1689. Commonly named by the medical community as “phthisis,” or “consumption,” signifying the wasting characteristics of the chronic disease, this “white plague” was the single largest killer of all adults in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and served as a representation of the heightened sensibility idiosyncratic of an enlightened culture of “high-living.”[2] Often at odds with reality, phthisis was a chronic, symptomatic disease without a distinctive cause, and as a result, “its nonepidemic nature also increased its appeal for the enlightened, since the patient was able to die individually, not amidst the countless dead.”[3] However, as David Barnes points out, the illness was not merely a metaphor, “not just a sign through which social relations or anxieties expressed themselves.”[4] It was a real disease that killed real people and despite descriptions of romantic imagery and snobbish aspirations towards sensibility, it was a disease that doctors struggled to cure.

In 1720, English physician Benjamin Marten (1704-1782) wrote, “of all the Distempers that afflict Mankind, there’s not one, for the Cure of which more Remedies have been appropriated and invented than a Phthisis, or Consumption of the Lungs.”[5] In the search of remedies, William Lambe (1765-1847) agrees “the treasures of nature have been exhausted by the experiments of benevolence, or the audacity of empiricism.”[6] Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) echoed similar words in 1803: “For the treatment of consumption…a great deal more remains to be done than to add to the mass of unexceptionable evidence, lately produced. No uniform method, and no single medicine is capable of effecting a cure in all the cases, referred to any denomination of disease.”[7] The long incubation period and occasionally asymptomatic nature of phthisis, along with its flexible and complex etiological model, led physicians to concentrate on developing cures for visible symptoms.

A mixture of medicine and dietetics were advised for consumptive patients, with an emphasis on proper diet, since “the patient in general should…eat food of easy Digestion”[8] to limit any obstructions in the bodily fluids. Edward Barry (1696-1776) advocated a popular milk diet, which he believed to be the “most fit to repair the great Decays of Consumptive Persons.”[9] Although Marten agreed with the theoretical benefits of a milk diet, he noted that he not “been able to discern such good Effects from it, in a true Phthisis, as to merit its being rely’d on for Course.”[10] Other physicians were more particular about outlining a dietary regime for consumptives. Philip Stern, for example, outlines a diet that allows a consumptive to “eat as often as he has an appetite, but never much at a time.”[11] No eggs or other animal foods were allowed, although a small quantity of veal or chicken broth was acceptable if the patient was weak. In addition, “potatoes, turnips, carrots, parsneps, beans, spinach, broccoli, fallets, bread and rice” was to constitute the general bill of fare, along with almond milk, barley water, or milk and water.[12]

Combined with diet, medicines were recommended to promise relief for the consumptive, “as they defend the Blood from the purulent Matter mixed with it and are mild and penetrating, as not to obstruct or irritate the Lungs in passing through them.”[13] Samuel Foart Simmons (1750-1813) advised the use of the elixir of vitriol, Peruvian bark, balsams, and periodic bleeding, and notes that “the use of blisters and issues, opiates, a milk and vegetable diet, exercise, and change of air, are pretty generally recommended by all.”[14] Other symptomatic cures, such as emertics, catharites, sorbefacients, epispastics, sudorifics, expectorants, demurcents, narcotics, suppuratories, astringents, tonics, angostura, lichen, were also advised. Beddoes in particular was fond of the foxglove. There were also other unique treatment methods. Many physicians advised Thomas Sydenham’s recommendation of country air and horseback riding. Lambe was fond of distilled water,[15] and Simmons wrote about “earth bath,” an old and common remedy in Genada and some parts of Andalusia.[16]


[1] E. Lomax, “Hereditary or Acquired Disease? Early Nineteenth Century Debates on the Cause of Infantile Scrofula and Tuberculosis.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 32 no.4 (Oct. 1977), 357. Prior to the closing decades of the nineteenth century, phthisis was commonly believed only to afflict in pulmonary forms; the presence of the tubercule bacillus in other parts of the body proved that tuberculosis was prevalent as other diseases, particularly in scrofula, or King’s Evil.

[2] Historian Margaret DeLacy explicates that though there was a large numerical increase in deaths from consumption, this does not mean that more deaths were statistically attributed to consumption due to any fundamental change in the concept of the disease; one does not suggest the other, though it may raise questions for historical analysis. M.DeLacy, “Nosology, Mortality, and Disease Theory in the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 54 (April 1999), 266.

[3] C. Lawlor and A. Suzuki, “The Disease of the Self: Representing Consumption, 1700-1830,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74 (2000). 465. Roy Porter also provides an excellent description of the effect of Enlightenment ideology in the social perception of consumption, in particular, the ways in which the culture of sensibility affected diets and social habits. See his paper,. “Consumption: Disease of the Consumer Society?” in Consumption and the World of Goods. Eds. John Brewer and Roy Porter (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 58-81.

[4] D. Barnes, The Making of a Social Disease: Tuberculosis in Nineteenth-Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 19.

[5] B. Marten, A New Theory of Consumption: More especially of a phthisis, or consumption of the lungs…(2nd Ed.) (London: Printed for R. Knaplock, 1722), 75.

[6] W. Lambe, A Medical and Experimental Inquiry into the Origins, Symptoms, and Cure of Constitutional Diseases; Particularly Scrophula, Consumption, Cancer, and Gout (Illustrated by Cases) (London; J. Mawman, 1805), 8.

[7] T. Beddoes, Observations on the Medical and Domestic management of the Consumptive: On the Powers of Digitalis Purpurea and on the Cure of Schrophula (New York: Penniman and Co., 1803), 4-5.

[8] Marten, A New Theory of Consumption, 142.

[9] E. Barry, A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs with a Previous Account of Nutrition, and the Structure and Use of the Lungs (London: Printed for William & John Innys, 1727), 260.

[10] Marten, A New Theory of Consumption, 145.

[11] P. Stern, Medical Advice to the Consumptive and Asthmatic People of England (16th ed) (London: J. Almon, 1776), 29.

[12] Stern, Medical Advice to the Consumptive and Asthmatic, 30.

[13] Barry, A Treatise on the Consumption of the Lungs, 262.

[14] S.F. Simmons, Practical Observations on the Treatment of Consumptions (London: J. Murrary, 1780), 31.

[15] Lambe, A Medical and Experimental Inquiry, 21.

[16] Simmons, Practical Observations on the Treatment of Consumptions, 78.

Free Public Talk: “Supporting the DIY Citizen”

The Knowledge Media Design Institute is hosting the opening event for the DIY Citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media Conference on Thursday November 11, 2010, 5-7 pm at the Tanz Neuroscience Building, 6 Queen’s Park Crescent, West (enter through the side door). The event is FREE and open to the public, but you need to RSVP in order to help us figure out catering numbers (RSVP here).

Here’s some information on the speakers:

Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and the former co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. He is the author or editor of 13 books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Democracy and New Media. He blogs at henryjenkins.org. His accomplishments as a public intellectual include speaking to the Federal Communications Commission, the United States Senate Commerce Committee, and the Governing Board of the World Economic Forum, as well as writing a white paper for the MacArthur Foundation on participatory culture and learning.

Corynne McSherry specializes in intellectual property and free speech litigation, with representative cases including Chamber of Commerce v. Servin, et al (trademark parody), Lenz v. Universal (copyright misuse), and MoveOn.org et al. v. Viacom (copyright misuse), as well as numerous amicus briefs on trademark, copyright and patent issues.  She regularly comments on fair use, free speech and innovation on radio and television, including NPR, CNBC, CBS, and Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor, and in news publications such as the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, the Boston Globe, CNET News, and Wired News, as well as numerous legal publications.  Prior to joining EFF, Ms. McSherry was a litigator at Bingham McCutchen, LLP, and wrote Who Owns Academic Work?: Battling for Control of Intellectual Property (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Should be super awesome–come and check it out!