Workshop Report: Working with 19th-Century Medical and Health Periodicals

The workshop ‘Working with 19th-Century Medical and Health Periodicals’ was held on 30 May 2015 and co-organized by the ERC-funded ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ Project and the AHRC-funded ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ Project, both based at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. The aim of the event was to facilitate conversation about the use of medical and health periodicals in historical and literary research, a resource which has been central not only to the work of the aforementioned projects, but also to that of many other scholars interested in various aspects of nineteenth-century history and literature. The programme was interdisciplinary, trans-institutional, bringing together both librarians and researchers, and international in its approach, with papers covering an impressive array of topics and countries, including Britain, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Poland, Portugal, and Russia. Overall, approximately 60 participants based at institutions in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Norway, Austria and the United States attended the workshop and a total of 18 papers were presented. The workshop also featured two poster presentations by Ann Hale (University of Greenwich) and Bernhard Leitner (University of Vienna), on medical jurisprudence in legal periodicals and the role of neurological journals in the development of Japanese psychiatry, respectively.

Despite the wide diversity of approaches and perspectives, the workshop proved highly successful in identifying and addressing a coherent set of problems associated with research on medical periodicals. It was recognized that ongoing digitization of such material has created a critical juncture for scholars, who are forced to rethink their theoretical and methodological tools as they embrace the opportunities offered by digitization, but also grapple with its challenges. On one hand, digitization has made periodicals more easily accessible and available to a wider public, it has led to the creation of digital platforms which allow researchers to track changes in disease terminology or to use text-mining techniques to identify structures, co-references and relations. On the other hand, however, the number of digitized periodicals remains limited and there is a real danger of decontextualization when using digital resources.

Researchers thus need to remember that the process of digitization is selective and that exclusions are not readily apparent. As many of the speakers have pointed out, researchers must exercise caution when using digitized periodicals as many of the sets are incomplete, there is a widespread bias towards the digitization of peer-reviewed periodicals and much of the wider publishing context, which can be gleaned from more ‘traditional’ resources like library catalogues and indexes, is missing. Participants have also pointed out that attitudes towards digitization may vary across national borders, while some countries lack the resources to digitize their materials. A more sustained collaboration between researchers, librarians and archivists as well as between scholars with varied linguistic and disciplinary expertise was advocated. Furthermore, researchers are encouraged to establish a proactive relationship with relevant institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons and the Wellcome Library, whose recent digitization efforts include popular titles like the Chemist and Druggist, to publicize their work with periodicals via feature articles and blogs, to join discussion lists, etc.

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The papers presented have also demonstrated that medical and health periodicals lend themselves to a variety of theoretical and methodological uses. Apart from providing insights into a range of medical debates such as those connected with the health of adolescent girls, medical publishing on sexual knowledge and attempts to bring proprietary medicines like chlorodyne under the remit of the law, the periodicals can also illuminate how scientific discoveries circulate (as seen in a late nineteenth-century example from Germany which publicized a formula for making ‘meat’ from industrial waste) or how photography is used to document and construct illness. In addition, medical periodicals can also be helpful to document practices of tropical medicine, the history of women doctors, especially in the absence of other types of sources, as in the case of Russia, or to demonstrate how medicine and science more generally are employed in projects of nation-building and how the medical press can function as an instrument of propaganda (the case of Portugal).

Many papers highlighted the dynamic, multivocal and often fragmented nature of medical periodicals as a genre. Speakers discussed both the content and the form of periodicals, with emphasis being placed on processes of production, circulation and consumption, the role of market forces in transforming periodicals into commodities as well as the use of technology and advertising techniques in the medical press. For example, the comparative examination of photographs in French medicine and theatre revealed how photographic technology was used to document the functioning of the brain and demonstrated the dialogical relationship between photographer on one hand and patients and actors on the other. In India, photography also provided a rare glimpse into the hospital and the zenana, but the dissemination of such material via periodicals disregarded local conventions of propriety and respectability.


The importance of medical periodicals in offering a platform for the voices of women doctors and nurses was also emphasized, especially in historical contexts such as that provided by Victorian Britain where women were excluded from universities and professional associations. By contrast, it was argued that in Russia women were not on the fringe of the medical profession but worked alongside men to improve their own condition and that of ordinary people. In this context, the significance of imperial connections also deserves emphasis: the empire was not only a laboratory which provided knowledge about tropical diseases, but also opportunities for British nurses to work in the field of sanitary reform and to further their career and negotiate more senior roles either at ‘Home’ or in other colonial locations. The imperial setting also illustrates the role of Christian missions in the publication of both specialized and general periodicals and the role played by medicine as a substitute for miracles. In India and China, the strong Christian symbolism associated with cataract surgeries transformed this medical procedure into an important way of healing both the body and the soul.

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The quality and range of papers presented as well as the feedback received from participants and other interested researchers from across the world prove that medical and scientific periodicals represent a thriving field of research. The organizers wish to thank all the participants and in particular librarian Thalia Knight from the Royal College of Surgeons and Damian Nicolaou from the Wellcome Library for providing us with invaluable insights into the practical and conceptual aspects of digitizing medical periodicals. We also welcome further comment about the workshop and suggestions on how we could continue this conversation in the course of the following years. A full programme of the workshop is available here; a podcast of the event will be available shortly.

--Amelia Bonea