For the LOVE of Medical History

DailyDose_PosterOn today’s MedHum Monday, we present a post from the Dittrick Museum of Medical History. The original post (by Catherine Osborn) first appeared as part of the #MuseumWeek posts, and it demonstrates beautifully the importance of history and other humanities to the study of medicine. We provide part of this work here, but see the site for brilliant images that further illustrate the medhum intersection.


It’s not uncommon for the Dittrick Medical History Center to be referred to a bit like a cabinet of curiosities,  a niche museum, or perhaps more kindly, a “hidden treasure.” Although we’ve always worked to make collections accessible and major public engagement efforts are underway, we still often have to make the case for the (sometimes not so) implicit question “Why should I care about medical history?”

The answer tends to go a little like this:

Medical history is the history of how we come into the world. Our Re-conceiving Birth gallery is not only about doctors, nurses, and midwives — it examines the experiences of women and babies from the 18th century to the 1940s. Beyond the particular questions of labor position, pregnancy diet, and types of forceps, this gallery calls visitors’ attention to larger, still pertinent questions: Is birth a normal or pathological event? Who’s experiences and knowledge are important during labor? Should birth hurt? How are difficult decisions made when both the mother and infant are at risk?

The progression of pregnancy. Spratt, 1848.
One of several images posted on Dittrick Museum’s blog–see the original for more [For the love of Med…]
By framing these questions through history, we hope to add to modern debates that these are not new concerns and that “traditional” approaches are not singular or homogenous.

Medical history is the history of how we change and respond to our environments. Humans have faced a range of emerging health concerns through travel to new places, movement into cities, changing diets, and exposure to industrial hazards. Many of the museum’s exhibits examine both the impact of these shifts, such as crowded city-dwelling facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases, and how we respond to these novel health environments. For example, Cleveland was racked by a deadly and disfiguring smallpox epidemic in 1901 and 1902, which was halted through a coordination of efforts to develop and widely distribute a safe vaccine.

These stories speak to the dynamic relationship between humans and their environment and cautions against assumptions that medical progress has eliminated any risk of new health challenges [read more]

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MedHum Mondays Book Review: Orphan Number Eight

DailyDose_PosterGood morning and welcome back to MedHum Mondays on the Daily Dose! Today, Review editor Anna Clutterbuck-Cook reporting on a novel that seeks to strike a balance between history, medicine, and fiction: Orphan Number Eight by Kim Alkemade.


 

Iorphan_number_eight_cvrn her debut novel, Orphan Number Eight, essayist Kim van Alkemade (Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania) seeks to offer readers a glimpse into the multiply-marginalized life of Rachel Rabinowitz. Orphaned in 1919 by the quasi-accidental homicide of her mother by her father, four-year-old Rachel is separated from her older brother and sent to an infant’s home. There, she is enrolled as a human subject in a number of medical experiments, including a radiology experiment conceived and conducted by ambitious medical resident Mildred Solomon. The prolonged exposure to radiation leaves Rachel hairless, a condition that makes her a target of bullying in the Home, and continues into adulthood causing her a great deal of body shame. Decades later, working as a nurse in a home for the elderly, Rachel finds herself caring for the now cancer-ridden and dying Dr. Solomon. The seemingly-fateful encounter prompts Rachel to  seek out a more complete picture of the medical “treatments” she endured as a child. What she discovers shocks and angers Rachel to such an extent she finds herself contemplating revenge.

Orphan Number Eight is written with a great deal of passionate anger about the complex and often ugly history of twentieth century medical ethics — a history that reveals a great deal of what, today, we would consider human rights violations. As an institutionalized child, the fictional Rachel had countless real-world counterparts — orphans, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the poor — whose socially vulnerable, othered bodies became a testing ground for medical research under circumstances that precluded informed consent. van Alkemade seeks to explore this history and its human cost through the fictionalized account of one such survivor. This decision to use the medium of fiction could have been a powerful narrative choice, yet despite its triumphs, as a reader I came away ultimately unsatisfied.

Warning: plot spoilers after the jump. Continue reading “MedHum Mondays Book Review: Orphan Number Eight”

Medhum Monday: Embracing Digital History with How Medicine Became Modern

index What was it like to be sick 50 years ago? 150 years ago?
What medical innovations most changed American lives?
How did Cleveland rise to importance as a medical city?
In other words:
How did we get here?

We at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum received some excellent news last week! In collaboration with design partners and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, we present: How Medicine Became Modern, an innovative new way to explore the artifacts, people, and stories behind the great innovations of our age!

Museums nationally and internationally are reaching new audiences—while retaining and engaging present ones—through the medium of digital technology. The Philadelphia Museum of Art presented inter-actives for Treasures of Korea; the Field Museum of Chicago showcased a 3D exhibit about Tyrannosaurus bones; the British Museum of London installed 3D touch-activated Explorer Tables allowing virtual autopsy of a mummy. More locally, the Cleveland Museum of Art opened the award-winning Gallery One.

Now, the Dittrick Museum embarks on a project to make history come to life through a 10ft by 4ft interactive digital wall–a place where visitors can “handle” artifacts (rotating BC-Logo_LGand zooming), and more importantly, a place to engage with the human stories behind them. Partnering with Zenith Systems and Bluecadet, and supported by NEH’s Museums Libraries & Cultural Organizations grant, How Medicine Became Modern will go live in 2017!

Exhibit Details:

  • 6Free-standing 10ftx4ft wall in the main gallery
  • Ability to zoom, rotate, interact with artifacts
  • Links to the stories behind artifacts/Access to interactive game-play
  • Four lenses into medical history:

HMBM

 Want to hear more?

How would something like this work? Why would a museum want to take part in digital mediums? The 225th anniversary of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Historical Medical Library (also the parent body of the Mütter Museum) asked these very questions in 2013. The answer? Museums and libraries must see new ways of engaging the public–and of building community. As I say in an essay for H-Sci-Med-Tech, History—far from being lost in the past—is by these means coming out to meet new friends. The story of medicine’s past offers something valuable to medicine’s future, a new way of interfacing between worlds that is both physical and digital, then and now. We enter the story through these public spaces, and through digital mediums, medical collections around the world are beginning to reach beyond them as well. What we see is a convergence of exhibit, interaction, and digital outreach.


A Practical Example from the Project:

The history of medicine offers much more than static displays or old tech. Each object, from a cast of Joseph Lister’s hand to a full-scale working x-ray machine, tells a tale of personal tragedy and triumph, of success and failure, of hopes and dreams.

Take, for instance, the phrenology bust. Sleek, smooth–replicas are attractive enough to show up on end-tables and mantle pieces. But what’s the story? It’s about Diagnosing by the Bump!

Franz-Joseph Gall (1758-1828), proposed that different functions, such as memory, language, emotion, and ability, were situated in specific “organs” of the brain. These portions of the brain would grow or shrink with use, and the changes would appear as bumps or depressions on the skull. Called Phrenology, the practice of “reading” the bumps supposedly allowed a practitioner to assess different abilities and personality traits. Does that make sense? What might our own phrenological assessment look like? The digital display allows the viewer to see a chart with interactive sections of the brain. Why not do your own “reading”?

William Cowper. 1737. The anatomy of humane bodies
William Cowper. 1737. The anatomy of humane bodies

But that’s not the only story. Phrenology resonated with the American Dream. Johann Kaspar Spurzheim (1776-1832) arrived to begin a speaking tour, and found a very willing audience. Why? It fit the “American Dream” idea of rising from nothing, emphasizing the ability to train the mind and attain social mobility. In other words, despite the bumps you were born with, we could all get better, a kind of rags-to-riches idea very popular even today. One of Cleveland’s own doctors had his “head examined”—Jared Potter Kirtland. On the other hand, phrenology and it’s sister pseudoscience physiognomy had a dark side; they privileged one race, one class, and one sex. Not exactly a “dream” of equality. (And for the record, Kirtland did not apparently agree with the reading; the booklet has his marginal notes!) The digital display offers the visitor a window in time; they can see the images and texts (and hand written notes!) while learning about larger ethical dilemmas.

Phrenology was later abandoned and its practitioners were attacked as charlatans and fakes. Even so, phrenology helped to move psychological understanding forward in two important ways: 1. it suggested that different parts of the brain did different things and 2. It demonstrated that individual effort could be just as, if not more, important than biological inheritance. The take-away? Through digital means, the visitor doesn’t just see the bust in a cabinet. Instead, he or she can look at it closely, from all angles, and then walk through time.

Johann Heinrich Oesterreicher. 1879. Atlas of human anatomy
Johann Heinrich Oesterreicher. 1879. Atlas of human anatomy

Better yet, the visitor can walk through the body—through anatomies and flip books of fugitive sheets (where each layer reveals more of the anatomy underneath). So much of our fragile history remains out of reach for visitors–but digital humanities/history projects can do much more than show the item itself. It can open up that artifact as a window into another time, another place.

We look forward with great anticipation to bringing this digital history/digital humanities project to life–the human story behind medical history: “How Medicine Became Modern.”

 

ORIGINALLY POSTED TO DITTRICK MUSEUM BLOG