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.




Cliopatria Awards: Congrats, Thony!!

The Sixth Annual Cliopatria Awards for History Blogging announced the winners last night in conjunction with the American History Association meeting in Boston. Congratulations to all the winners, but I want to give a special congrats to Thony Christie, from Renaissance Mathematicus for winning Best Individual Blog!

Well done, Thony, for making the HoS community proud! Here’s the judges’ rationale:

If blogs are notoriously fragmentary and centrifugal endeavors, then it’s a particular accomplishment that Renaissance Mathematicus gives such a coherent picture of scientific and theological endeavor in the 16th and 17th-century. Calling himself a “myths-of-science buster,” Thony Christie convincingly shows the interconnections, idiosyncrasies, and rivalries (the “Royal Rumble”) of Renaissance scientists as well as their vaunted individual genius. And yet, if Christie writes authoritatively — sometimes obsessively so — the author’s sense of humour ensures that the reader is never intimidated. It is, in fact, a light-hearted blog, and that’s why it works: the history of science can be taken too seriously, and can be detached from life as it’s lived. Renaissance Mathematicus never lunges too deeply into esoterics, and often connects back to the present-day.

Online: Sir Hans Sloane

As I’m finishing off a round of grading, re-writing a paper for publication, and planning the HAPSAT conference, I’m trying to find time to dig around for archival sources for my upcoming research trip to London. The National Archives can sometimes be difficult to maneuver, which is why I really appreciate efforts to catalog and organize historical correspondence for online access.

Having said that, I’ll like to thank a good friend for directing my attention to the launch of Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online. The pilot website provides access to the letters of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), famous physician, scientist and collector. Sloane’s letters cover a wide range of topics, such as science, travel, collecting and medicine, and provides another glimpse into the British historical past.

As it is now, the website is a repository for navigating through the Sloane correspondence, which is held at the British Library. Letter descriptions, transcripts, and commentaries are expected to follow on the website as they are added to the database.

So dear Reader, here’s another rich and valuable historical source for you! Happy reading!

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.


DIY Citizenship: Critical Making & Social Media Schedule

So pleased to announce that the DIY Citizenship conference–which is one of the conference I’m working for–has just posted the preliminary schedule.

The line-up looks fantastic and I’m looking forward to hearing many of the presentations. There is a conference registration fee, but you can attend the free event on Thursday November 11, “Supporting the DIY Citizen: social and legal challenges of participatory politics and culture,” by Henry Jenkins (USC Annenberg) and Corynne McSherry (Electronic Frontier Foundation, San Francisco).