Category: Digital Collections

Public Access, Outreach, and Health

DailyDose_PosterMedicine is not practiced in a vacuum; cultural and geographical context matter, and the community shapes both innovation and practice. Cleveland’s history reveals the remarkable collaboration of medical institutions and the public—it does not rest only in the hands of physicians or with distant hospital systems. Now, as then, health is everyone’s concern. But how do we engage the public? And how can we make it plain that the public has rights–and power–to shape medicine? Historically, individuals had a greater share in shaping their care out of necessity. The Dittrick Museum’s collection of herbals and medical remedies is a testament to just how much people took health into their own hands. Dr. Culpepper’s Last Legacy (1655) contains prescriptions for do-it-yourself potions [from our instagram]: Untitled-1Obviously, we are not mixing witches’ brew these days, and certainly no doctor or pharmaceutical company is going to publish recipes for homemade medicine. Then again, a resurgence in homeopathy and plenty of websites that promote home-remedies suggest that there is an audience…And a quick scan reveals plenty of misinformation, too. How can an interested public find good information about their health and health choices? Whose responsibility is it to make access to care, and even information about care, easier and more intuitive? The patient often does not feel like an empowered part of the medical process. A few years ago, The Atlantic published a piece called “Power to the Patients” that took issue with the traditional doctor knows best mantra: “it is only by empowering patients – entrusting them with greater responsibility and putting opportunities for self-directed care into their hands – that health care can be made significantly more efficient and effective.” [1] But, the article goes on to admit, sorting out how you can be empowered in the midst of a health crisis is probably too late. Let’s take it a step further: do healthy people feel empowered about their health? Do they understand that they are stake-holders? Possibly not. The New York Academy of Medicine is taking a community approach to this problem. They have a renewed dedication to “urban health,” and seek to address the broader determinants of health, and “the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to care.” Their new logo sports the phrase: Healthy Cities. Better Lives. It’s not a new idea. It’s a return to an old idea–one that thrived in cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cleveland, Ohio, is one brilliant example. Polio hit urban centers hard,  leaving debilitated children in its wake. The iron lung could keep people alive, but the world needed a vaccine, and then a systematic way of implementing vaccination protocols. A combined effort of doctors, philanthropists, the media, and everyday people led to record-breaking changes. Salk’s vaccine dropped cases by 90% by 1962 in Cleveland, and led to the eradication of the disease in the rest of the US. Public awareness and empowerment did what laboratory medicine could never hope to achieve on  its own. Community engagement, public empowerment, and (key in the polio crisis) access to care and information wins the day. And that returns us to the first question. How do we engage and educate the public? Whose job is it?

The short answer: it’s everyone’s job. But I want to take a moment and focus on the power of history.  Museums and libraries–and institutions generally–have an important role to play. To address misunderstandings about medicine, and crucially about who controls or drives innovation, the Dittrick has developed an interactive, digital exhibit and attendant programming called How Medicine Became Modern. The exhibit will be a free-standing digital touch-screen wall, 10ft x 4ft, in the main gallery, providing the story of our shared medical past and cultivating means of seeing the relationships among culture, society, and health. But we have also begun two types of public outreach as well–“conversations” that begin with the history, then allow panels and round tables to discuss medicine today. The story of polio and others like it remind us: we are part of this story. History records more than the names of famous doctors. It demonstrates the innovation, the boldness, the concern, and the action of every day citizens. Medical humanities, or health and humanities, is all about the human story at the core. Let’s work together to bring that story out, and to be part of it. [1] Clayton M. Christensen and Jason Hwang. “Power to the Patients” The Atlantic 2009

MedHum Monday Presents: Adventures in Human Health

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and Medhum Mondays! Today’s post (re)introduces a theme we’ve treated extensively in the past–medical museums, collections, and the story of health.

I work at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. If you’re not familiar, you may want to check out the instagram feed–because that really will give you a sense of the breath and depth. But hey, why not a few teaser images:

Medical Museums have a tendency to be grouped into the category of the macabre, likened to cabinets of curiosities, rather than understood in the broader concept of museums generally. There is nothing at all wrong with that designation, but like natural history museums and art museums, the Dittrick medical museum tells a story about the human condition (in this case, often the human medical condition) in the face of technology. That story is as varied as it is fascinating: after all, being sick in 1810 and being sick in 1910 were rather different experiences!

The Dittrick collection contains about 150,000 artifacts, plus rare books and ephemera. What does an amputation set look like? Why and how was blood-letting used? How about the first tech of germ theory–or the first x-rays? Disease prevention, diagnostics, reproduction and contraception, even forensics: the Dittrick museum tells the human story behind the medical technology (including the ethics–or not–of treatment procedures). Our programming follows suit, and in fact, this coming Thursday we are presenting our annual (free) lecture on contraception history. Deanna Day will discuss thermometers and contraception, the contested ways in which women historically attempted to control their fertility. A week from Thursday and Sachiko Kusukawa from Trinity College, Cambridge University will discuss Vesalius, anatomy, and the Fabric of the Human Body.

Join us–at the events (see here), at the museum, or online @DittrickMuseum on twitter and Instagram… and see how a medical museum delivers Medical Humanities!


Medical Humanities: Building a Community

Visitors in the Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments, one of the most comprehensive in the country

How do we build community? What makes it possible?

The Medical Humanities, operating at the intersection of fields, aims to bring diverse perspectives together. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the mad tumult and breakneck pace at which we presently live, it’s increasingly difficult to be heard–though we are less like voices crying in a wilderness and more like people shouting at a hurricane. Carving out space for truly meaningful engagement is tricky business, and today I am going to liken it to a similar issue faced by museums and libraries.

For the past year, the Dittrick Medical History Center has hosted a medical humanities reading group. Housed in the Allen Memorial Medical Library, we provide a beautiful building and a practical space–but also much more. Our historical collections are diverse

Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.  Woodcut circa 1530 - 1545
Male figure, anterior view showing blood vessels, liver heart and bloodletting points.
Woodcut circa 1530 – 1545

and fascinating (500 year old ivory anatomy models, Beck’s defibrillator, Vesalius’s Fabric of the Human Body), but any curator will tell you, objects simply do not speak for themselves. Museums, libraries, and other cultural spaces must do more; we must build a relationship between history and humanities–we need supportive communities.

And those communities need us, too. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me since leaving the usual tenure track appointment for academics in favor of museum work is that a real hunger exists for alternatives and intersections. The usual routes–be they for degrees, careers, interest, investment, and engagement–don’t always satisfy. Hybridity and interdisciplinarity garner a lot of press, but how can we put such things truly into practice? One way is to form alliances between the medical humanities and medical museums like the Dittrick. We believe in the value of such communities, and want to make them an integral part of all we do. Here’s a look at how we’ve made those inroads.

Kate Manning, signing books in the contraception gallery after her talk

To build–and so to provide–a robust inter-disciplinary community, the Dittrick Museum has focused on membership, exhibit engagement, social media presence, and event planning. That means welcoming those beyond the walls to join us in new ways. This past September, we hosted a book talk by Kate Manning (author of My Notorious Life), packing the Zverina roomfor a talk about women’s issues, women’s health, contraception, history, and fiction. Kate signed books, gave a reading, and talked about the value of museum collections for her work. A link to the talk appears here; as Kate said, “here at the museum, I am surrounded by the things I once only imagined.” We’re also hosting a “mystery at the museum” night, as well as our other annual lectures, talks, and receptions.

Members at one of the Explorations talks, this one on the changing doctor-patient relationship brought about by the stethoscope

Of course, to bring in a public is only part of the process; we want those who visit to feel part of what we do. We want and need vibrant and engaged people to help us bring the humanities and medicine to the wider public. As a result, we’ve also begun to offer things like the Explorations talks for our members, interesting and behind the scenes chats about the museum or about history and the humanities more generally. We are also hosting a trolley tour of the Lakeview Cemetery the day after Halloween; many medical luminaries are buried there and it provides an interesting way to get the “dirt” on local history. These events are free to our members (see how to join), a fee for non members, but the point is this: Provide a narrative, the story of our shared medical past. Provide a space and also a reason to see the relationships among culture, society, health, gender, and more. To engage with the human side of medicine has always been one of the goals of medical humanities; to engage with the human at the interstices of culture, history, medicine and the humanities is also the goal of many a medical and scientific museum.

Members of the Medical Humanities Reading Group at Case Western Reserve University

And so, with our continued programs and projects–and a robust online platform (twitter, instagram, web, and blog), the Dittrick museum has sought to be a center for outreach and engagement. It has been our pleasure to host the medical humanities reading group and we welcome other like-minded affiliations. Join us. Be part of our community. Let’s make history.

[Images by Frank Lanza]

MedHum Monday: Stones, Clocks, and Stars at the National Maritime Museum

DailyDose_PosterHappy MedHum Monday! Today’s post is brought to us by Dr. Katy Barrett, Curator of Art, pre-1800 at the Royal Museums, Greenwich, UK. Her piece is a narrative from the current exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude which relates the search for lasting health with the difficulties of searching for one’s place in the world. Take it away, Katy!

Finding your longitude at sea was difficult in the eighteenth century. While latitude can be measured from fixed points on the earth or in the heavens, you can draw your meridian line of longitude anywhere. To know your distance east or west of your meridian you need to know the time difference, and thus need an accurate clock to keep the time of your home port while you measure your local time from the height of the sun. If you can’t find your longitude you don’t know where you are in relation to land, and that can lead to loss of life, of cargo and of time. In 1714, as one of her last acts, Queen Anne therefore signed a bill to find a solution to longitude.

Why should medical humanists care about this story? Yes, more accurate navigation makes ocean voyages quicker and safer, reducing the risk of scurvy, to which George Anson would lose hundreds of his crew in the early 1740s when unable to locate the island of Juan Fernandez. But longitude was also equated to medical concerns back home. It was the prize money attached to the longitude act that really fascinated contemporaries: £20,000 for the most accurate solution. The deluge of proposals that this prospect of wealth unleashed led many to see the attempt as a mere project: idle, mad, or even malicious, the outcome of which would only be to dupe or even harm the naive investing public. William Hogarth showed just such ideas in the final plate of his series A Rake’s Progress, where one inmate of Bedlam desperately tries to change his fortunes by solving longitude on the wall of the madhouse.

Hogarth's In the Madhouse
Hogarth’s “In the Madhouse” from the A Rake’s Progress series.

Hogarth represented a similar attitude to ‘quack’ doctors. In plate 3 of his Marriage-a-la-Mode, the adulterous earl takes his young mistress to see a doctor whose room is stuffed with projects for miracle cures. In the Company of Undertakers and Cunicularii, he suggested that all medical practitioners were on a similar spectrum. Indeed, a number of contemporary commentators and satirists suggested that the search for longitude and attempts to prolong life or cure particularly feared diseases were equally absurd. In 1729, Gabriel John, who styled himself ‘a seventh Son, and Teacher of the Occult sciences in Yorkshire’ satirised fellow doctor John Hancock’s miracle cure for the plague saying, ‘if the Doctor has the Art to make People immortal, what is that to any body? There must be a time to find out the Longitude, if ever it be done; and some body or other must do it, if any body does; ay, and the Philosopher’s Stone too.’[i] The Philosopher’s Stone, of course, being another miracle means to prolong life, which an inmate of Newgate Prison attempts to produce in plate 7 of A Rake’s Progress.

Hogarth's "The Prison Scene" from the A Rake's Progress series.
Hogarth’s “The Prison Scene” from the A Rake’s Progress series.

Attempts to cure the stone and syphilis were, likewise, equated with longitude. But, the stone presented a particularly interesting case. In 1738-40, Joanna Stephens announced that she had found a cure for the stone and petitioned parliament for a reward of £5,000, which she received after disclosing her cure to a group of trustees.[ii] The clear parallels with the set up of the longitude act did not go unnoticed by contemporaries. The journalist William Kenrick commented in 1744 that, ‘the parliamentary rewards, that have been offered and paid for the finding out the Longitude … for a nostrum for the Stone, and for several other inventions and discoveries, afford a sufficient proof that the encouragement of ingenuity … is in general adjudged to be politically expedient.’[iii]

Sketches of Harrison's early chronometer from 1767
Sketches of Harrison’s early chronometer from 1767

He did not comment on the outcome of Stephens’ cure, which had soon turned out to be ineffective despite her demonstration to the trustees. This blatant abuse of public funds therefore led commentators to suggest that John Harrison, the now famous clockmaker attempting to gain the £20,000 longitude reward, might be similarly a mere projector.

In his Letters from Altamont, the poet Charles Jenner reported that, ‘a certain mechanic of this inventive city, has contrived a time-piece with all the principles requisite for [finding longitude] … There are not, however, wanting a party who say, that the people appointed to examine into the merit of the projector’s claim, have been too hasty in their judgement … It is not many years since a reward was offered for any person who should discover a certain cure for that dreadful disorder, the stone: a woman offered her claim, and received the reward for a medicine which has since been found, in many cases, impossible to be administered, and in others ineffectual.’[iv]

For all concerned, the process of solving longitude at sea could be as complex, contested and painful as curing the stone. For contemporary onlookers, both projects were equally absurd.

Dr. Katy Barrett is Curator of Art, pre-1800 at Royal Museums Greenwich and part of the AHRC-funded research project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World’. []

Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London until 4th January 2015. See for all related display and events



[i] Gabriel John, Flagellum: or, a dry answer to Dr. Hancock’s wonderfully-comical liquid book, which he merrily calls Febrifugum magnum (London, 1723), p.15.

[ii] See Arthur J. Viseltear, ‘Joanna Stephens and the Eighteenth Century Lithontriptics: A Misplaced Chapter in the History of Therapeutics’ in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 42:3 (1968), pp.199-220, and Nicky Reeves’ on the Board of Longitude blog

[iii] W. Kenrick, An address to the artists and manufacturers of Great Britain; Respecting an Application to Parliament for the farther Encouragement of New Discoveries and Inventions in the Useful Arts (London, 1774), p.16

[iv] Charles Jenner, Letters from Altamont in the capital, to his friends in the country (London, 1767), pp.86-8.


MedHum Monday: The Medical Heritage Library’s “Never-Ending Work in Progress”

Is from Plexus Vol XV No 12 (1909), the publication of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Medical Department of the University of Illinois, Chicago. From the University of Illinois Chicago Library of the Health Sciences Special Collections Department.
From Plexus Vol. XV No 12 (1909), the publication of the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Medical Department of the University of Illinois, Chicago. From the University of Illinois Chicago Library of the Health Sciences Special Collections Department.

Happy Monday, everyone! Those of us at the Daily Dose send best wishes to those beginning the new school year today — as students, teachers, parents, etc. Amidst the Monday chaos, today’s MedHum Monday post resumes our series of contributions from lovely individuals who work at medical history museums and libraries. Hanna Clutterbuck is here to share how the Medical Heritage Library takes the printed or filmed history of medicine and makes it available digitally for a much wider audience. Welcome, Hanna!

I work with the Medical Heritage Library, an online digital collaborative of leading medical libraries, including the Francis A. Countway Library at Harvard University, the United States National Library of Medicine, the Wellcome Library in the UK, and the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (a full list of our partners and contributors can be found on our website).

Our collection includes a wide variety of materials that all fit under the large ‘history of medicine’ umbrella. We have deliberately kept our scope large and we have monographs, journals, and audio/video items covering a wide variety of topics including the history of dentistry, plastic surgery, neuroscience, balneology, phrenology, physiology, psychiatry, psychology, the development of surgical technique, the history of anesthesia, and nursing history.


Sunday Sentiments: On the Invention of Writing

DailyDose_PosterSUNDAY SENTIMENTS: food for thought

Writing is a technological innovation. It had to be “invented,” and there was a time when it was “new.” Jay David Bolter reminds us that viewing “technology” solely as buttons and wires is a misapplication of its Greek root word techne, which meant an art or craft.[i] He also reminds us that both the medieval manuscript and ancient papyrus rolls would have been new “technologies” to their respective periods: “the development of mechanical printing and now writing by computer has affected our view of these previous writing techniques.”[ii] What was once true technological advancement has become, to our understanding, an ancient art form not to be confused with the computing machines of today. But of course, writing itself (when first introduced) was mistrusted, and even Plato—who used it so effectively to disseminate information—was deeply ambivalent.

The Greeks held oral culture in high regard. The memory, the spoken narrative, and the play dominated. Writing in ancient Greece consisted of wax coated clay tablets and the stylus, a metal instrument used to record language. In later ages, the scroll took its place and then enormous illuminated manuscripts of ink on vellum, bound in leather. By the time of Shakespeare you had smaller more rapidly produced folios with folded, sewn pages. Wood-block printing made reproduction easier, and moveable type (first introduced in the 11th century but not really gaining traction till after the Renaissance) made printing the way of the future. By the 18th century, text could be quickly and cheaply produced, broadsides gave way to lengthy epistolary novels, adventures and histories, and finally to the triple-decker genre explosion of the Victorian age. Print was ubiquitous–and soon, the average individual could produce print at home.

By the 19th century, the typewriter became a house-hold good. The average middle-class home could afford one, and carbon paper soon made copies easier to produce. It did not end there. Charles Babbage created the first mechanical “computer” in 1822, and Conrad Zuse invented the first programmable computer in 1938.[iii] Digital computers followed (and took up whole rooms). The first mass-produced computers arrived in 1953. The term “word processing” coined at IBM‘s Böblingen, West Germany Laboratory in the 1960s–though electronic typewriters had already been replacing the old-fashioned kind (I had one–it could “erase” and I thought that was amazing.) The first personal computer, manufactured by IBM, appeared in 1981. [iv] I bought my first desktop in 1995 (for a whopping $2200, though it had less processing power than a smart phone).  In the 21st century, the personal computer is more than a house-hold good; it is nearly a house-hold god.

“Writing” has changed, but the words stay the same–we still say we are “writing” and we still use a “notebook,” but we mean typing and we mean laptop computer. “Mail me a physical copy” means “send a digital format that is printable to my electronic in box.” We have reverted to the “tablet” and the “stylus,” only these are now electronic mediums. Text has replaced writing–and even typing has become less necessary with the advent of voice-to-text protocols. I speak, out loud, to my device. It records me, not on paper, but in the “cloud,” a great roving data center stored everywhere and nowhere, hovering like Jungian collective memory. Perhaps the day will arrive when even the data centers and servers will not be necessary–when devices will not be hand held but internal, when we will speak into an ever expanding oral culture and visual video and photo connectospehere, the digital versions of memory and theatre and cave painting. And when we arrive at that place, where “everything is special and so nothing is,” the digital will have become invisible, understood, innate–and boring.

And then, we will be ready once more for the “invention” of writing.


[i] Bolter, David Jay. Writing Space. 2nd ed. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2001. (15)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Computer Hope.

[iv] Ibid.

Early Forensics: The Dittrick Museum Blog

L0057809 Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935Are you interested in the contents of that lovely blue bottle? It is the subject of murder and mayhem in the 19th century–a plague if arsenic poisonings!

Forensic science had a long history before CSI and other detective shows made it popularly regarded. At the Dittrick Museum of Medical History,  we hope to explore more of this rich history for a spring exhibit: Steampunk, Sherlock, and Forensics (details not yet available). To whet your appetite, here is a teaser–go to the Dittrick blog page for the rest of this blog post! As for details on the event, they will be forthcoming as available.

From Early Forensics: The Problem of Arsenic, Dittrick Museum

In the early part of the 19th century, a fine, white powder was all the rage among murderers (and some would-be beneficiaries). It was easy to acquire and easy to administer, too. Tasteless and colorless, it might be added to food or water and ingested. It was even called the “inheritor’s powder” because it aided in the rapid passing of the rich and elderly.

What was arsenic doing on shelves to be purchased, you might ask? In the 19th century, arsenic was used in wallpaper, beer, wine, sweets, painted toys, insecticides, clothing, hat ornaments, coal, and candles (A further list of uses may be found in James C. Whorton’s The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain Was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play). But of course, arsenic is still used today, frequently an ingredient in ant poison and insecticides; Michael Swango, a 20th century Dr. Death, used arsenic to sicken his colleagues before going on to kill his patients with other drugs. Swango got caught–but early 19th century poisoners did not. Why? (…read more…)