History of Medicine at #BSHS15

Last week I, along with a number of postgraduates and research staff from Leeds HPS, attended the annual conference of the British Society for the History of Science at the University of Swansea. There were many excellent papers, including Ageliki Lefkaditou’s work on the relationship between biology, culture, and ancestry in Greece during the post-genomic era. 

Greg Radick giving his Presidential Address, 'Experimenting with the Scientific Past'.
Greg Radick giving his Presidential Address, ‘Experimenting with the Scientific Past’.

@hpsleed‘s Greg Radick also gave a great Presidential Address on Mendelian genetics and counterfactual histories, while Graeme Gooday had the honour of receiving the Pickstone Prize for his co-authored book, Patently Contestable, named as the best scholarly book on the history of science in 2014.

However, for reasons of space, this blog post focuses on papers that specifically addressed the history of medicine and the medical sciences. If you would like to read more about the wider variety of papers presented at the conference, take a look at the Twitter hashtag, #BSHS15.

On the first day we heard from Coreen McGuire, who presented some of her most recent PhD research on the development of telephony in interwar Britain. Drawing upon disability studies and John Pickstone’s framework of scientific objectivity, she discussed how, during these decades, the Post Office no longer engaged with its deaf subscribers as important sources of knowledge in the development of new amplification technologies. Instead, their subscribers were redefined as patients, whose individual experiences of telephone usage were homogenised through quantitative medical analysis.

On Saturday, Anna Mohr opened the first Public Health panel with a paper on the rise of analytical work among army MOs during the 1830s, which allowed them to collect vast amounts of quantitative data regarding the health of troops around the British Empire. Her paper raised a number of questions about why statistical data among army MOs became compelling so much earlier in the nineteenth century than was the case among civilian health professionals. Diana Garrisi then spoke about the ways that Victorian newspapers played to public curiosity and anxiety over diseases of the skin, using the specific example of bedsores among workhouse inmates. She identified several institutional problems, including inadequate treatment provisions and staff numbers, that contributed to the prevalence of these sores. Interestingly, Poor Law institutions justified their limited provisions by identifying bedsores as syphilitic (and therefore unresponsive to such improvements in nursing practices).

I opened the second of the Public Health panels with a paper that introduced my forthcoming JRF project. Linda Palfreeman and Mercedes Del Cura González then gave two excellent papers on the development of medical and welfare services during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco Era. Palfreeman demonstrated how civil war catalysed the clinical application of blood transfusion techniques that had previously been experimental, and that would become crucial to military medicine during the Second World War. González then presented a paper on the emergence of parent-driven support groups for children with learning disabilities, which were instrumental in attaining adequate educational and welfare services during Franco ́s dictatorship.

There were also a number of excellent papers that explored the interconnected social and medical concerns for health and productivity in modern life. Sally Shuttleworth, PI of Constructing Scientific Communities,  examined the development of nineteenth-century medical categories of mental pathology that were responding to the strains and uncertainties associated with commerce. Using examples such as George Black’s popular 1888 book, Brain-Work and Overwork, she demonstrated the emergence of medical and popular theories of mental exertion and overstrain. 

Drawing upon similar nineteenth-century anxieties over health and productivity, Lisa Haushofer emphasised the centrality of food in her paper on the proceedings of the 1884 International Health Exhibition. She demonstrated how the Exhibition praised collaboration between science and industry, articulated a vision of optimal individual and national health, and sought to educate the public about choosing the ‘right’ kinds of foods. 

Speakers also linked the history of medicine with the history of eduction. On the final morning, Melanie Keene discussed the embodiment of anatomy for children during the nineteenth century. She explained how a variety of sources (books, periodicals, objects, and images), combined with educational philosophies that increasingly emphasised embodied learning, presented children’s own bodies as central pedagogic tools that complemented lessons on the natural world, as well as spiritual and moral training and discipline. Hannah Kershaw concluded that morning’s panel on children’s education with a paper about the representation of sex education and HIV-positivity on the BBC programme, Grange Hill. She charted how, over the course of five key episodes, its young audience was presented with factual and emotional realities of the impact of HIV/AIDS. These episodes were also a critical critique of the Major government’s policy that made sex education mandatory but simultaneously withdrew all references to HIV/AIDS from the National Science Curriculum.

It was a fantastic conference that prompted new ideas about the focus, direction, and methodology of my own research. It was also a great opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues from other universities, and to meet new researchers working on the history of medicine.

And, being by the seaside, we of course took the opportunity for some cultural engagement.

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