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.




Cures of all Kinds

Breathing into the ear to relieve deafness (19th Century)
From: The Magnetic and Botanic Family Physician.
By: D Younger
Published: E. W. Allen.London 1887
An ear cleaner at work; by an unnamed Dehli painter, commissioned by Colonel
James Skinner. Watercolour 1825 (Delhi)
The surgeon Capiomont stitching the ear of general Oudinot at the battle of Wagram, 1809. Watercolour by F. Pils.
An operator making an incision behind the ear of a seated patient, two assistants restraining the patient, and six other people in the room. Oil painting attributed to Joachim van den Heuvel.
An operator extracting “pierres de tête” from behind a man’s ear, with four other people in attendance. Oil painting by a follower of Pieter Jansz. Quast.

All images from Wellcome Collection.

Monday Series: Constructing the (Naked) Social Body II


Before continuing with my examination of the ideology of Nacktkultur and its respective relationships with the social body, I will first briefly outline what constitutes as a history of the body. Scholarship based upon the works of Foucault has emphasized the role of the body as a vehicle of social inquiry. According to Foucault, the historical specificity of the body and its history can only be learned through the notion that individual bodies are not separate entities, but rather products of construction existing in relation to a conceptual system. For Foucault, these complicated conceptual (and political) systems resided within clinics, jails, and asylums. The birth of the clinic, for example, seized the body with a medial gaze that penetrated inquisitively into the body, turning it to a discrete object of medicine. Reduced to its medical and biological realms, the body was expelled from history; it could only be understood within the social systems that govern it.

Arguably, the body then can only be understood as a socially constructed object for discourse. Building upon Foucault, historians have examined the diverse cultural variations of the body’s manifestation and attributions: sleep, food, sexuality, disease, age, and death, have all become topics of discourse.[1]  Discussing the role of the social body for historical analysis, Catherine Burroughs and Jeffery Ehrenreich question the historical ramifications for the body becoming socially constructed: “For if a body can be reshaped to accommodate a particular society, it can also be partly wrestled from that society’s control by an individual who has achieved enough power to redesign it according to his own desires.”[2] The symbolic body, as an object of historical discourse, literally embodies the values, prejudices, beliefs, and ideologies of its societies; additionally, it shifts, transforms, and mutates in reflection to the social and cultural meanings of historical periods.[3] The cult of Nacktkultur exemplifies this statement; viewed as a means to reconstruct the weakened German bodies, its power as a life reform movement transformed during the 1920s.

The body is thus overburdened with meanings. As a “source of amazement and pride, a symbol of human strength, ability and endurance,”[4] it embodies the hopes, fears, and expectations of its society. In its natural state, it serves as an antidote to problems of urbanization and industrial modernity.[5] Despite the Judeo-Christian tradition of associating nakedness with shame, Nacktkultur placed nakedness as an effort to recreate an Edenic state within the thrust of modern civilization.[6] The naked German body of the 1920s was a social body, with intense political significances, carrying multiple dimensions of identity and construction. Nakedness was not viewed as a separate force from the civilization, some form of savageness or incivility, but rather as a means for recovering one’s humanity lost within the symptoms of decay and cultural pessimism of postwar Germany. To most nudist Germans, the naked body became subjugated as a metaphor for reform, although as Heikki Lempa explains, “[t]here is no universal history of the body, no codification of science and practices that were applied to and applicable to each and everyone equally. The body is that of an individual who is a member of a social class, and that body is the carrier of the signifiers of that class.”[7]

While Lempa’s statement is true in the sense that the Germans did not view a single, universal history of the body, nudists aimed to construct a universal history, one which would represent the struggles between individual and state. In doing so, they aimed to reform society by first removing signifiers of social distinctions and reforming their bodies and disillusioned minds.  Nudists argued stripping their layers of clothing would reveal the universal and naked humanity underneath, which would cultivate an attitude towards equality that was absent in a society marked with social distinctions of class and wealth. By erasing titles and other forms of social distinctions, Nacktkultur suspended class inequalities as both the educated middle class and members of the working class would realize that material possessions were important. Nudity would be seen as a “certificate of authenticity,” as Germans “would not be reminded anymore of their own poverty and would forget the sorrows of everyday life. Envy based on social distinctions would vanish, and the German people would be welded into a “brotherly whole.””[8] Even the health of the proletariat—whose only real capital was their bodies—could raise consciousness for need for social equality.[9] 

Additionally, Nacktkultur presented an alternative view of the history of the body, one which celebrated nakedness as the highest and purest manifestation of German culture and beauty.[10]  From the late eighteenth-century onwards, life reformers emphasized the importance of a form of health and beauty that rejected the luxuries and refinements of the wealthy classes and stressed a return to the aesthetics of nature. For these life reformers, this return meant an expression of aesthetic ideals based on bodily norms of Greek antiquity. The history of the German body in this sense is traced to the representations of the ideal Hercules and Venus that embodied masculine and feminine ideals of strength, beauty, and perfection of the race. As Hau explains, “through the control of their bodies, [the life reformers] hoped to regain the fitness that would enable them to succeed again in the perceived struggle for survival,”[11] counteracting against images of the fat and bloated “beer philistine” which represented the weak and decaying bodies of the German race. Any deviance from the “timeless aesthetic norms of Greek antiquity” exposed signs of degeneracy of bodies, which in turn threatened the survival of the German race and manifested itself in serious diseases. Since beauty was accepted as an organic expression of a healthy and harmonious relationship of body, spirit and mind, life reformers urged for a body-consciousness that implemented aestheticized concepts of health.[12] “Normalcy was the precondition for beauty,” Hau explains, “while ugliness was the most important signs of degeneracy, a warning sign by nature which conveyed the message: ‘Do not love this person, because united with her you will worsen the race.’”[13]

The history of Nacktkultur is then the history of the German (naked) body. Disillusioned with social and political uncertainty, and faced with a strong perception of crisis, turn-of-the-century nudists found themselves politically charged and anxious for social reform. The perceptions of Nacktkultur were shot with political ideologies, and as Williams outlines, the more controversial ideologies of Nacktkultur spilled over to the social body, sparking loud debates and moral panics.[14] In the next section, I will narrate the origins of Nacktkultur and its ideologies. I will then discuss how, as a symbol of society, the naked body was able to penetrate and transform the ideologies of the social body.


[1] U. LInke, German Bodies: Race and Representation After Hitler (New York: Routledge, 1999), 3.

[2] C. Burroughs and J.D. Ehrenreich, Reading the Social Body (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993), 4.

[3] C. Ross, Naked Germany: Health, Race, and the Nation (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2005), 4.

[4] Ross, Naked Germany, 5.

[5] Williams, Turning to Nature, 3.

[6] A. Masquelier, Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 2.

[7] H. Lempa, Beyond the Gymnasium: Educating the Middle-Class Bodies in Classical Germany (London: Lexington Books, 2007), 6.

[8] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 196.

[9] Williams, Turning to Nature, 24. See also, G. Stollberg, “Health and Illness in German Workers’ Autobiographies from the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” Social History of Medicine 6.2 (1993): 261-276.

[10] Ross, Building a Better Body, 13.

[11] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 15.

[12] Hau, The Cult of Health and Beauty, 33.

[13] M. Hau, “Gender and Aesthetic Norms in Popular Hygienic Culture in Germany from 1900 to 1914,” Social History of Medicine 12.2 (1999): 275.

[14] Williams, Turning to Nature, 2.

Article Review: M. Fissell’s “Hairy Women and Naked Truths” (2003)

Oh, I apologize, Dear Reader! I realize it’s been a couple of days since I last posted. September has overwhelmed me already (seriously–I’m counting down the days until I go on vacation). I’m running tutorials for the first time (for a course on the history of evolutionary biology) and I underestimated the amount of prep work required. What this means is that all dissertation-related work has taken a backseat to all other projects and responsibilities: tutorials, working and organizing for two (!) conferences, writing an article, and reading for two reading groups. BUSY.

However, I’ve been thinking a lot about representations how it relates to bodies of knowledge. I recently read Mary E. Fissell’s (John Hopkins) “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece” (William and Mary Quarterly LX (2003): 43-74) and was marveled on her notion of “vernacular epistemology”—or, how ordinary people understood knowledge and knowledge claims.

Fissell’s article focuses on the idea of knowledge being represented, preserved for interpretations by an audience. She looks at the frontispiece of various editions and reprints of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which was first published in 1684 and was neither a masterpiece nor written by Aristotle. Rather, the treatises were guides for pregnancy arnd childbirth and were bestsellers during their times. The Masterpiece spanned numerous reprints and editions throughout the eighteenth century, and it was a grand competitor in a “crowded market” on the topic of childbirth and reproduction, and Masterpiece I was actually composed of two earlier works: Lemnius’ Secret Miracles of Nature, and the anonymous Complete Midwives Practice Enlarged. Masterpiece II (1697) included a (unauthorized) reprint of John Sadler’s A Sick Womans Private Looking Glass. Masterpiece III (1710) as well, included parts from earlier texts, including those in previous printings of the Masterpiece.

Fissell’s focus on the text derives from its questioning frontispiece, which illustrates two “monstrous” individuals: a hairy woman, and a black baby (born to white parents), and she analyzes the various shifts in representation that is produced with each edition and reprint of the Masterpiece. The original edition contains the hairy woman and black baby, both the result of the maternal imagination, and Fissell questions the paradoxical nature of the illustration: why would a book intended for pregnant women contain such an image of monstrosity on its front cover? She argues that it actually served to represent arguments about knowledge and secrecy, or “vernacular epistemology.” Thus, for Fissell, revealing the meaning of the image(s) would provide clues to histories of gender relations and natural knowledge.

As theories on gender relations shifted through the eighteenth century (from paternity towards maternity), as did the politics of popular knowledge, the images on the Masterpiece was cut to represent the shift. Masterpiece I was a standard account of conception, pregnancy, labour, delivery and newborn care, and also contained Lemnius’ prints and discussions on monstrosity, which tried to provide a naturalistic account for such malformations. Masterpiece II includes an image of a medical consultant, with a doctor, as Fissell notes the aim was to provide women information to discuss with their doctor, instead of having the book replace the doctor (which it actually was done). Masterpiece III, was different that the first two, its representations a combined attempt of both I and II, as it places the hair woman and the black baby in the learned man’s study, “poised at the threshold between nature and culture.” The elements portrayed in III reflect the philosopher “Aristotle” as a figure of learned culture, the hair woman an element of Nature, animality, savageness and lust – all measured in excess. The black baby also embodies elements of comparison: against “whiteness” or “fairness,” reflections on tensions of “race,” and even notions of heredity, as popular texts emphasized the “two-seeded model,” where both parents shaped the appearance of the offspring.

Fissell also notes that the relationship between “seeing” and “knowing” was well-represented in the text, and the binary relationships which recapitulates the vernacular epistemology of the book, as knowledge was sexualized, placed in political terms (paternity crisis), though nowhere in the text are the symbols of the images explained. She also notes that later editions of the Masterpiece replaced the hairy woman with a naked or half-clad one, who was to represent truth, beauty or nature, reflecting a transformation of society towards politeness, especially with a shift in gender relations and views on women’s sexuality in the eighteenth century. The philosopher as well, becomes subordinate to the nude woman, and as a reflection of politeness, the black child becomes white. The book’s representations, therefore, are used as a mirror-image of society and its cultural beliefs and values.

Fissell also published her book, Vernacular Bodies: The  Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2007).

I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it’s nicely sitting on my bookshelf and waiting for me to go through my reading list.