Bookworms & Medical History
Historians know all about books. Publishers. Proposals. Fonts. And proper theoretical frameworks. You name it. Historians have got it cased. Sure, to avoid becoming archaic – extinct – dinosaurs, historians are shifting with the times and engaging in a wider ‘digital turn’. But books still matter.
(Yes, I have a flair for the obvious.)
In Volume 12.2 of Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine , the University of Toronto’s Jennifer Connor offers up a series of articles on A NEW HISTORY OF THE MEDICAL BOOK. She situates her edited volume in the larger ‘history of the book’ movement of the 1990s. It was a movement, she writes, that witnessed “the establishment of centres for book study at national libraries and universities,” “bibliographies and plans for national histories of the book,” and “new societies, conferences, journals, book series,” as well as “graduate-level courses and degree programs…” (204)
As she prepares CBMH-BCHM readers for the issue, Connor offers a thematic taxonomy of the fourteen essays. It’s a breakdown that includes: (1) the physical form of medical publications; (2) the range of genres for medical writing; (3) the collecting of print material in private and institutional libraries; (4) the links between medical publications and their social or intellectual milieu; (5) and the nature of the publishing enterprise itself.
First she meditates on the history of the book in medicine. She then turns to what the new history of the medical book may look like in the years ahead. Thereafter, she concludes with some general thoughts that still possess force:
“Publishers’ promotion aside, the transformative power of electronic media on the book cannot be denied. Certainly the economic advantages to publishers, researchers, health-care practitioners, and patients alike in having information widely available, continually updated, and easily accessed hold tremendous implications for the health sciences in future.” (211)
One of the stand-out articles (for me) has to be Heather Burton’s ‘ “Still in Process”: Collaborative Authorship in a Twentieth- Century Biomedical Textbook,’ an account of Molecular Biology of the Cell. More particularly, it’s an account of the “unique and close collaboration between six outstanding scientists” who wrote one of the best-selling textbooks of all time. Even more particularly, it’s about Burton chronicling the writing of the book with one of her own. Essentially, Burton’s awesome article is about a book about a book. Seriously trippy.
Molecular Biology of the Cell, according to Burton was conceived by James Watson as far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s. He saw “that molecular biology was at the forefront of science and that the curriculum was on the verge of changing.” However, the field had no textbook to guide and define it. And he sought to move beyond another boring, traditional text. “His idea was for a bold, fresh approach, yet at the same time one that was comprehensive and cohesive.” (374)
My favourite moment in the article is the authors’ back-and-forth about the writing of their now seminal textbook. It wasn’t always an enjoyable, seamless process. It wasn’t always easy – as any historian or author knows all too well. Yet, the collaborators still managed to have some fun, including posing for a photograph in which they recreated the Beatles’ Abbey Road cover. See page 377 for the image that mirrors the one below.
And so the article goes…
Yet, Connor’s edited issue was not the only place in which CBMH-BCHM drilled deeper into the history of the book.
In 1993, Ian Carr explored the life of William Boyd, one of the best known figures in the history of Canadian pathology. A professor of pathology in three Canadian universities, Boyd “is remembered chiefly because of the number and success of his textbooks.” (77) The article is called “William Boyd-The Commonplace and the Books.”
In what could have been a straightforward (and Whiggish) history of Boyd, Carr instead gets very interesting. In an effort to understand his historical actor more closely, Carr places a spotlight on Boyd’s ‘commonplace’ book.
According to Carr: “Commonplace books, in which people recorded what they had read, were written in increasing numbers in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they were used during the Renaissance as places of reference, in formal arguments) but the keeping of a commonplace book gradually became the hallmark of a writer or literary individual. It was, before the Xerox or card index, an artificial memory. Robert Burns, Thomas Hardy, and W. H. Auden, among others, have left interesting commonplace books. William Boyd is therefore in good company. To my knowledge, no other major medical writer of this century has left such a book.” (78)
While some of the material in Boyd’s book may seem frivolous, Carr believed that (and so do I) “the choice of quotations gives a picture of the inside of William Boyd’s mind…” (79)
Kipling and Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth – for Carr, the inclusion of these greats offers historians of medicine a more comprehensive view of one Canada’s luminaries in pathology.
And there’s more…
In David Shephard’s 2000 article on “The Casebook, the Daybook, and the Diary as Sources in Medical Historiography,” readers are exposed to the writings of John Mackieson, Jonathan Woolverton, and James Langstaff – three Canadian physicians.
While diaries and journals have long been used in order to describe personal experiences, explains Shephard, doctors also relate their medical experiences through casebooks and daybooks. And when placed alongside “account books” and “clinical-notes,” the “casebooks” and “daybook” constitute “a common literary genre among physicians in the nineteenth century.” (245) They were, as Shephard argues, “used to report the details of interesting clinical cases, to provide records for future reference, to serve as aides-memoires in the preparation of journal articles, books and lectures, and sometimes to fulfill requirements in a student’s training.” (246)
And so Shephard delves into Mackieson’s, Woolverton’s, and Langstaff’s casebooks/daybooks, thereby moving CBMH-BCHM readers beyond the standard textbook (Molecular Biology of the Cell) and the commonplace book (re Boyd)…
In Shephard’s estimation, these types of historical sources provide a snapshot of medical training and, more importantly, lend insight into rural vs. urban medical practice.
Accept it. Historians of medicine truly are bookworms. Thanks for reading!
This short article is part of broader series of posts. And I’m incredibly excited to be working with CBMH/BCHM and University of Toronto Press over the summer months. It will be my pleasure to help out with journal’s migration to the UofT’s publishing platform. As part of this transition, we are moving all of the back issues onto UofT’s server, and in some cases enhancing them, with abstracts and keywords. The journal is about to publish its 66th issue, so there are lots to consider!
As the journey commences this summer, I’ll be posting and tweeting about the process – all of the amazing stops and bumps in the road, as well excellent articles and contemporary health and medicine issues dating back to the mid-1980s. I’d guess holidays would come first, but I encourage you to share and participate in the voyage as much as you can!