Category Archives: History of Medicine

Technology, Hope, and Motherhood: What We Can Learn from the History of the Infant Incubator

Date: Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Time: 5:00 p.m.
Location: Rubenstein Library Room 153 (Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room)

Professional headshot of Jeff Baker
Dr. Jeffrey Baker

Join the Trent History of Medicine Lecture Series for our next talk by Jeff Baker, M.D., Ph.D., on Technology, Hope, and Motherhood:  What We Can Learn from the History of the Infant Incubator. At the turn of the last century, a new medical invention known as the infant incubator captured the imagination of physicians and the public.   The device became a public sensation and appeared in settings ranging from hospitals to world fairs midway side-shows (complete with live infants).   But in the process it set off a great controversy regarding whether so-called premature and weak infants should be rescued in the first place, and whether their care should be entrusted to mothers, physicians, or scientifically-trained nurses.

Dr. Baker is the Director of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & History of Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine at Duke University. He is the author of The machine in the nursery : incubator technology and the origins of newborn intensive care (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996) and a leading authority on the history of neonatal medicine.

The talk will be held in the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Room 153, of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. All are welcome to attend.  Sponsored by the History of Medicine Collections.

A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Health Advice for Scholars and Students

19th century illustration showing two school boys sitting opposite one another at a table. According to the image's caption, the one on teh left is showing poor writing posture, while the one on the right is showing the proper posture.
Calvin Cutter. A Treatise on Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene: Designed for Colleges, Academies, and Families. Philadelphia, 1852.

“It is an old complaint,” wrote the eighteenth-century Swiss physician Samuel-André-Auguste-David Tissot, “that study, though essentially necessary to the mind, is hurtful to the body.” Student health is the subject of a new exhibit entitled “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Health Advice for Scholars and Students,” now on display in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room.

Photograph of the title page of the book "The Haven of Health"
Title page to Thomas Cogan. The Haven of Health… London, 1612.

Since antiquity, scholars and students have been bombarded with warnings about the potential health hazards associated with a life of sedentary study, the medical side effects of which have been said to range from a loss of vision, cramped posture, and consumption to melancholia, bad digestion, and even hemorrhoids. Heeding these warnings, scholars and students have for centuries turned to medical guides for advice on how best to counteract the effects of “hard study.” While such guides often vary as to specifics, all commend some form of attention to diet, exercise, and regimen as means to a long and healthy life, urging adherence to an ancient ideal: mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Image in honor of W.W. Card, director of athletics at Trinity College. Image includes 11 photographs of Card in various athletic poses.
“Health and Strength,” Wilbur Wade Card Papers, Duke University Archives, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

The items in the exhibit trace the history of medical advice written specifically for scholars and students and reflect the wide range of approaches to scholarly health.  The exhibit, on display in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, runs through July 16, 2017.

A Sound Mind in a Sound Body is curated by Thomas Gillan, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern

We’ve Got Brains!

Post contributed by Rachel Ingold, Curator of the History of Medicine Collections

Brains are really neat
Not just for zombies to eat
Come, give books a peek!

In honor of Brain Awareness Week, we’d like to remind everyone of our History of Medicine Collections which includes over 400 years of research, writings, and illustrations of the brain.

Fritz Kahn. Das Leben des Menschen…. Stuttgart : Kosmos, Gesellschaft der Naturfreunde Franckh’sche Verlagshandlung, [1926-1931]. Bd. 4.
Animated GIF showing the different layers of the brain
George Bartisch. Ophthalmodouleia. Dresden : Matthes Stöckel, 1583

 

Charles Bell. The anatomy of the brain: explained in a series of engravings. London : T.N. Longman and O. Rees [etc.] 1802.
Johann Dryander. Anatomiae, hoc est, corporis humani dissectionis pars prior. Marpurgi : Apud Eucharium Cervicornum, 1537.

 

The Society for Neuroscience states that while Brain Awareness Week is officially March 13-19, there are ways to be involved throughout the year. Similarly, we invite you to visit our History of Medicine Collections and other collections in the Rubenstein Library all year long, not just this week.

 

From the History of Medicine Artifacts Collection: Perkins’s Tractors

Post contributed by Thomas Gillan, the Josiah Charles Trent Intern in the History of Medicine Collections.

Given its designation as the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, you might assume, correctly, that the library’s History of Medicine Collections consist primarily of books and manuscripts, but did you know that they also boast a large collection of historical medical instruments and artifacts? Some of these objects are reassuringly familiar. Others, however, can seem somewhat more baffling.

Perkins’s Tractors. History of Medicine artifacts collection, 1550-1980s. History of Medicine Collections.
Perkins’s Tractors. History of Medicine artifacts collection, 1550-1980s. History of Medicine Collections.

Take, for instance, the objects identified in the collection guide as “Perkins’s tractors.” At first glance, they are often mistaken for horseshoe nails. Historian James Delbourgo, who has written extensively about these so-called tractors, notes that they “were disarmingly simple things. A set consisted of two three-inch metallic rods made of brass and iron, and they sold for twenty-five continental dollars in North America, five guineas in Britain.”[1] According to Delbourgo, their very simplicity was what made the tractors so appealing.[2] At a time when doctors regularly resorted to such “heroic” measures as bleeding, blistering, vomiting, and purging, Perkins’s tractors offered a painless alternative, one that was less invasive but no less controversial.

The man behind these seemingly strange instruments was one Elisha Perkins of Connecticut. Born in 1741, Perkins received his medical training from his father, a physician in Norwich, before establishing his own practice in Plainfield. There, in the course of his practice, Perkins “discovered that, by drawing over the parts [of the body] affected in particular directions certain instruments which he formed from metallic substances into certain shapes, he could remove . . . most kinds of painful topical affections, which came under his care and observation.”[3]

Perkins, it turns out, was quite the salesman. In 1796, he patented his tractors. Thereafter, Perkins and his son took to promoting them. Together, they published a series of pamphlets touting the tractors’ efficacy. These pamphlets invariably included testimonials from satisfied clients. Prominent among them were Jedidiah Morse, a Congregational minister; John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court; and Josiah Meigs, professor of natural philosophy at Yale.[4] Even George Washington himself is reputed to have owned a set.[5]

Like other novel medical therapies, such as Galvanism and Mesmerism, Perkins’s were the subject of much popular attention, not all of it positive. Most regular physicians were skeptical of Perkins’s claims, so much so that in May of 1797, the Connecticut Medical Society expelled Perkins on grounds of quackery. Still other physicians sought to make sense of the tractors’ mysterious workings.

One such account can be found among the Benjamin Waterhouse papers. In a letter dated February 1, 1802, Abijah Richardson, a physician in Medway, Massachusetts, wrote to Benjamin Waterhouse, then a professor of medicine at Harvard, relating “an account of a Young Lady’s Case, who was relieved of a painful disorder by the use of a Metelic tractor.”[6] In 1796, Richardson explained, he had been “called in to see Miss P.T. about eighteen years of age” who for several years “had been subjected to fits of the head-ach.”[7] Having heard of Perkins’s tractors “being efficacious in relieving painful disorders,” Richardson decided to put the tractors to the test.

Abijah Richardson to Benjamin Waterhouse. 1 February 1802. Box 1, Folder 2, Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1782-1841. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Abijah Richardson to Benjamin Waterhouse. 1 February 1802. Box 1, Folder 2, Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1782-1841. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. (Click image to enlarge!)

Without access, however, to a real set of tractors—he apparently did not have a set of his own—Richardson offered up “an artificial magnet which I supposed was of similar efficacy with the points.”[8] After obtaining his patient’s consent, Richardson proceeded to draw “light parallel strokes from the temple & forehead above the right eye down to her neck & top of her shoulder.”[9] Richardson here followed the method laid out by Perkins himself of “drawing the Points of the Tractors over the Parts affected, and continuing them along on the Skin to a considerable Distance from the Complaint, usually towards the Extremities.”[10] Richardson went on to recount how, in the course of her treatment, his patient’s pain, following the strokes of the tractors, “gradually abated & left her.”[11] From this, Richardson “was led to suppose that the tractors relieved pain by attracting & conveying heat from the pained part.”[12]

Title page to John Haygarth’s experiment involving Perkins’s tractors.
Title page to John Haygarth’s experiment involving Perkins’s tractors.

In 1800, John Haygarth, a physician in Bath, England, published the results of an experiment that cast doubt on the tractors’ efficacy. In 1799, having “contrived two wooden Tractors of nearly the same shape as the metallick, and paints to resemble them in colour,” Haygarth set out to test whether these “fictitious tractors” could produce the same effect as “the true metalliack Tractors of Perkins.”[13]

Much to his surprise, both sets of tractors “were employed exactly in like manner, and with similar effects,” leading Haygarth to conclude that the “whole effect undoubtedly depends upon the impression which can be made upon the patient’s Imagination.”[14] Haygarth’s experiment was one of the first documented demonstrations of what later came to be known as the placebo effect.

Despite their critics, Perkins’s tractors continued to be commercially successful, even after the death of their inventor in 1799. They even went on to become the subject of a poem satirizing the medical profession.

To explore these and other items from the History of Medicine Artifacts Collection, check out the collection guide, which contains descriptions and images for many of the items. Also, stop by the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room at the Rubenstein Library to see a rotating selection of items from the collection on permanent exhibit.

Footnotes:

[1] James Delbourgo, A Most Amazing Scene of Wonders: Electricity and Enlightenment in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 240.

[2] Ibid., 251.

[3] Benjamin Douglas Perkins, The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body (London, 1798), 5-6.

[4] Ibid., 69, 9, 37.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Abijah Richardson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1 February 1802, Box 1, Folder 2, Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1782-1841, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Benjamin Perkins, Directions for Performing the Metallic Operation with Perkins’s Patent Tractors [London, 1798].

[11] Richardson to Waterhouse, 1 February 1802.

[12] Ibid.

[13] John Haygarth, Of the Imagination, as a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body; Exemplified by Fictitious Tractors and Epidemical Convulsions (Bath, 1800), 3.

[14] Ibid., 3, 4.

Global Health Humement Project & World AIDS Day Event

When: Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Time: 3:00 – 5:00 p.m., reception to follow
Where: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room (room 153) of the Rubenstein Library

This semester, Global Health Professor Kearsley Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives class is tackling a new project using Rubenstein Library collections. Working with poet and writer Kelley Swain, students are exploring the Maria de Bruyn Papers, a rich collection of global health materials related to de Bruyn’s work as a medical anthropologist globally addressing HIV/AIDS.

Students in Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives explore the de Bruyn papers.
Students in Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives explore the de Bruyn papers.

Students are delving into the de Bruyn papers as they work with Kelley Swain and learn more about the Humement project, based on the work of artist Tom Phillips, and apply this to their class. You can find details about their work in a recent DGHI newsletter. (A very important note: Original materials were not altered. Students spent an afternoon selecting original documents to scan and reproduce for their projects.)

In conjunction with the work of Professor Stewart’s class, the History of Medicine Collections is co-sponsoring an event with the Franklin Humanities Institute, the Health Humanities Lab, and the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities & the History of Medicine to recognize World AIDS Day. The event will be held on Wednesday, November 30, from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. with a reception to follow, held in Room 153, the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room of the Rubenstein Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Speakers will include Maria de Bruyn, Alicia Diggs of North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN), poet and writer Kelley Swain, and students from Professor Stewart’s HIV/AIDS Narratives class.

An exhibit in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room will highlight a small sample of what can be found in the Maria de Bruyn papers. In addition, students in Professor Stewart’s class will be showcasing their work on the Student Wall in Perkins Library in December and January.

The Apothecary Ledger of Hugh Mercer

Post contributed by Thomas Gillan, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern.

Apothecary Shop: Engraving by Clemens Kohl featuring the interior of an apothecary shop. History of Medicine Picture File, History of Medicine Collections.
Engraving by Clemens Kohl featuring the interior of an apothecary shop. History of Medicine Picture File, 1523-2002, History of Medicine Collections.

Among the 20,000 books and 4,000 manuscripts that together comprise the History of Medicine Collections at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library—not to mention the collection’s hundreds of medical instruments and artifacts—is a large, leather-bound account ledger in folio kept by Hugh Mercer, an apothecary in Fredericksburg, Virginia, from 1771 to 1775.

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1725, Mercer went on to study medicine at Marischal College, graduating in 1744 before taking up a post as an assistant surgeon in the army of Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.

With the Scots’ defeat at Culloden in 1746, Mercer fled to America, arriving in Philadelphia in 1747. Mercer settled in what is now Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where he practiced medicine for eight years. During the Seven Years’ War, Mercer served in the British army, where he met and befriended Colonel George Washington. Following his service, Mercer resettled in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decision no doubt influenced by Washington.

It was in Fredericksburg that Mercer, along with his business partner and fellow physician Ewen Clements, opened his apothecary shop. On May 28, 1771, in the Virginia Gazette, Mercer and Clements, “partners in the practice of physic and surgery,” announced that they had “opened a shop on the main street, opposite to Mr. Henry Mitchell’s store, furnished with a large assortment of drugs and medicines of the best quality, just imported from London; where Gentlemen of the profession and others may be supplied at easy rates, for ready money.” Together, Mercer and Clements compounded and dispensed medicines, diagnosed patients’ disorders, and prescribed and administered treatments.

The ledger kept by Mercer, which documents the history of his practice from 1771 to 1775, is a microcosm of the social and intellectual worlds of eighteenth-century Virginia. It contains entries for more than three hundred different accounts. Below each entry, Mercer meticulously documented his visits with patients, the medicines he dispensed, the treatments he prescribed, as well as the fees he charged.

An entry in Mercer’s ledger for the account of Colonel Fielding Lewis, a Fredericksburg merchant and George Washington’s brother-in-law.
An entry in Mercer’s ledger for the account of Colonel Fielding Lewis, a Fredericksburg merchant and George Washington’s brother-in-law. Click image to enlarge.

Among Mercer’s many patients were Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother; Betty Washington Lewis, George Washington’s sister, and her husband Colonel Fielding Lewis; Thomas Ludwell Lee; John, Henry, and William Fitzhugh; and Mann Page. Mercer often noted the occupations of his patients, who ranged from merchants, planters, and gentlemen to tradesmen, schoolmasters, undertakers, and stage players. A number of women, many of them widows, kept their own accounts with Mercer. Also among Mercer’s patients were the enslaved men, women, and children whose visits were charged to their masters’ accounts.

Mercer kept a running index in the back of the ledger for each of his accounts.
Mercer kept a running index in the back of the ledger for each of his accounts. Click image to enlarge.

Mercer offered a range of treatments and services to his patients, from bleeding, purging, and pulling teeth to blistering, vomiting, and setting broken bones. He likewise dispensed a variety of compounds and medicines. These included saline mixtures, purging pills, febrifuge drops, liquid laudanum, balsam honey, magnesia, glauber salts, and stomach elixirs. In keeping with the medical science of his day, Mercer’s treatments were aimed at restoring the delicate balance of his patients’ four humors—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and ensuring equilibrium among the body’s solids and fluids.

In all, Hugh Mercer’s ledger offers a unique window into the prevailing medical beliefs and practices of eighteenth-century Virginia society and represents only a sample of the Rubenstein Library’s rich collection in the history of medicine.

Applications Now Accepted for the 2017-2018 Travel Grant Program

t1867-1The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library is now accepting applications for our 2017-2018 travel grants. If you are a researcher, artist, or activist who would like to use sources from the Rubenstein Library’s research centers for your work, this means you!

The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture, the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, the History of Medicine Collections, and the Human Rights Archive (new this year!) will each award up to $1,000 per recipient ($2,000 for international applicants to the Human Rights Archive) to fund travel and other expenses related to visiting the Rubenstein Library. The Rubenstein also offers the Eleanore and Harold Jantz Fellowship, a $1500 award for researchers whose work would benefit from use of the Jantz Collections.

The grants are open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, independent scholars, artists, and activists who live more than 100 miles from Durham, NC, and whose research projects would benefit from access to collections held by one of the centers listed above.

More details—and the grant application—may be found on our grants website. Applications must be submitted no later than 5:00 PM EST on January 31, 2017. Recipients will be announced in March 2016.

Lecture: The History and Legacy of Ivory Anatomical Manikins

Date: Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Time: 4:00 p.m.
Location: Rubenstein Library Room 153 (Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room)

Cali Buckley
Cali Buckley

Join the Trent History of Medicine Lecture Series for our next lecture by Cali Buckley on “The History and Legacy of Ivory Anatomical Manikins.” Ivory anatomical models comprise a little-known set of objects that were popular with male doctors of the late 17th- and 18th-centuries. Their narrative is currently being revised in light of a history of questionable assumptions. Though small and largely inaccurate, the story of anatomical manikins reveals how the politics of medicine impresses meaning on medical objects – often transcending the needs of the scientific community. Ms. Buckley will present on her current hypotheses as well as the process by which medical objects can be examined according to social history, connoisseurship, and material culture.

Cali Buckley is a Ph.D. candidate in art history at Penn State University. She received a Fulbright U.S. Student Award that allowed her to spend the 2015–16 academic year in Germany working on her dissertation, “Early Modern Anatomical Models and the Control of Women’s Medicine.”

The talk will be held in the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room, Room 153, of the Rubenstein Library at Duke University. All are welcome to attend.  Sponsored by the History of Medicine Collections.

A Delicate Balance: Understanding the Four Humors.

During my tenure as the Research Services Graduate Intern at the Rubenstein Library, I had the great fortune of exploring the fascinating history of the four humors, a topic that is far afield from my doctoral research on the culinary history of New Orleans. Setting aside my copy La Cuisine Creole, I picked up a first edition of Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612) and paged through whimsical woodcuts that featured long swordsmen, lions, and laurelled lutenists. Although New Orleans’ history is bedazzled by myth, that of the four humors seems surreal, emerging out of a world occupied by dragons and vengeful gods. What resulted from my foray into this cosmos is a new exhibit in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, entitled, “A Delicate Balance: Understanding the Four Humors.”

photo of "A Delicate Balance" exhibit
A Delicate Balance: Understanding the Four Humors, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photo credit: Ashley Rose Young.

The four humors were a means of analyzing a person’s disposition as well as her physical, mental, and emotional health. Within this belief system, every person had a unique humoral composition that shaped her behavior, appearance, and interactions with the broader world. Visualized as bodily fluids whose levels were constantly in flux, Hippocrates named the four humors black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood. Each humor was paired with one of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and air and was assigned qualities of cold, moist, dry, and hot. Their influence on the body changed with external factors like the time of day, the season of the year, and the age of a person.

The origins of this medical philosophy and practice are attributed to the Indian Ayurveda system of medicine as well as ancient Greek, Roman, and Islamic physicians. This holistic approach to human health was pervasive in the Medieval and Early Modern periods and remained a common means of assessing and treating the human body until major advancements transformed medical practices in the mid-nineteenth century.

Prior to these innovations, medical practitioners sought to help ailing patients by restoring the delicate balance of the humors and did so through techniques such as bloodletting and herbal remedies. The new exhibit features a bloodletting fleam that a physician would have used to lance open a vein to remove excess blood from the body so as to bring equilibrium to a patient’s internal fluids. In the United States, doctors employed bloodletting through the Civil War to treat soldiers suffering from infection and fever.

Bloodletting fleam
Three-blade folding fleam with brass shield, 18th or 19th century, Dr. Callaway Collection Artifacts, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Consumption also played a major role in balancing the four humors. Throughout Early Modern Europe, for example, physicians kept gardens with plants that were assigned to a particular humor. They believed that patients could restore their bodies to full health by consuming carefully crafted herbal remedies comprised of stems, leaves, fruits, and nuts. Practitioners organized gardens to represent the potency of medicinal plants. Some of these historic gardens still exist today. The circular Minerva Garden in Salerno Italy, for example, is divided into four quadrants representing the four humors with the most potent plant life at the center of the garden. This garden is a physical embodiment of the healing powers ascribed to plants within the humoralist system.

Minerva Garden, Salerno Italy.
Minerva Garden, Salerno Italy. Photo credit: Ashley Rose Young.

In the next few weeks, I encourage you to visit the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room on the first floor of the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library so as to glimpse into the rich history of the four humors and their impact on medical practices in the Early Modern period through today.

Ashley Rose Young, curator of "A Delicate Balance" exhibit, giving an exhibit talk in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room
Ashley Rose Young, curator of “A Delicate Balance” exhibit, giving an exhibit talk in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Photo credit: Jennifer Scott.

 

Post contributed by Ashley Rose Young, a Ph.D. candidate in History at Duke University and the Business History Graduate Intern at the Hartman Center.

Measuring the Children of the Corn

“The babies are entered like any other exhibit at an agricultural fair. . . . They are examined by judges, just as live stock [sic], grain or apples are examined. . . . The result is bound to be – not prettier babies, – but better babies at each year’s fair, – a stronger, healthier race of people on the farms, in small towns and in the state.”

This excerpt from a Better Babies Bureau circular, from the papers of Victor Bassett, contains several templates for Better Baby Contest advertisements. Popular at local fairs in the early 20th century, Better Baby Contests presented a lighthearted way to challenge infant mortality and promote fitter populations. However, they also reveal governmental eugenic efforts to objectively quantify and thus improve American health.

Announcement for Better Babies Contest.
Announcement for Better Babies Contest.

Examiners judged children under five years old on their measurements and proportions, mental and developmental states, vision and hearing, and physical development. These tests set government-determined averages as the standard by encouraging families to “produce” children who met or exceeded these ideals. Additionally, they served to cement the public health as existing in the realm of scientific medicine and the government, rather than in the home. These kinds of contests illustrate the complex relationship between eugenics, popular movements, and public health.

Thanks to a generous History of Medicine travel grant, my visit to the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library allowed me to conduct research to support my dissertation, “Measuring Health: The United States Sanitary Commission, Statistics, and American Public Health in the Nineteenth Century.” I examine the statistical work of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC).

During the American Civil War, the USSC attempted to improve the health of the Union Army. The leaders of this organization understood their work as forwarding ideas about preventative medicine and improving sanitation. Yet with the entirety of the Union army at their disposal, the USSC also inspected and measured over one million soldiers and sailors. These records include tabulations not simply of height and weight, but also the distance between a man’s eyes, the size of his head, and angles of his face. The statisticians presented their findings in groups divided by race and education level, and, while they provided limited interpretation of these numbers, they were made available to the broader scientific and anthropologic communities. It was in their hands that these numbers defined medical standards for Americans and shaped the nature of American public health.

My project explores why these statistics were collected and how they were used, and, more broadly, the Commission’s public health legacy. By using these statistics as a starting point, I explore the ties between the USSC and changes in public health, and how research from a 19th century organization continues to impact later public health issues. These Better Baby Contests represent the Commission’s legacy of measuring the quality and usefulness of a human being and of using governmental authority to establish scientific authority.

Post contributed by Sara Kern, a Ph.D. candidate in History & Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University.