Contributed by Courtney Block, Faculty, Indiana University Southeast Library; 2023-24 Recipient of a Harry H. Harkins T’73 Travel Grant for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History
During my sabbatical in Fall 2022, I travelled to the Rubenstein Library to research items from the Parapsychology Lab Records. Specifically interested in learning more about women in the field’s timeline, I was most eager to find materials pertaining to Rhea A. White (1931-2007), researcher, author, and librarian. As a librarian and author myself, I felt a connection to Rhea. I knew that Rhea worked at the Duke Parapsychology Labs and was a prolific figure who conducted original research, served as editor of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, and authored several books. What I didn’t know (and was able to access during my time at the archives) is that in the 1950s Rhea wrote nearly 70 pages worth of love letters to her co-researcher Margaret L. Anderson. In these letters, Rhea not only discusses her feelings for Margaret (Marg), but also discusses her near-death experience, dismantles gender binaries, and even reveals that J.B. Rhine once asked her to keep an eye out for certain behavior so that the labs wouldn’t be mired in “scandal.”
My time spent with these letters and the continued research they have set the path for reminds me of a concept that Rhea developed in the 1990s called ‘exceptional human experiences (EHEs).’ Rhea defines EHEs as “a class of spontaneously occurring, unusual experiences.”[i] At the crux of an EHE is its ability to “change the way the experiencer behaves or feels or thinks about [themself], other people, other organisms, and attitudes toward or ideas about the meaning of self, life, death, and other subjects of deep human import that the ordinary person does not have time to ponder deeply, if at all.”[ii] Reading the letters was an exceptional human experience and researching Rhea and Marg’s lives continues to be one as well.
[i] Genie Palmer & William Braud. “Exceptional Human Experiences, Disclosure, and a More Inclusive View of Physical, Psychological, and Spiritual Well-Being.” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 34(1): 2002. 30.
[ii] Rhea A. White. “The Human Component in Exceptional Experience.” Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 20(1): January 1997. 24.
By the 20th century, sheet music had long been a tradition in the music industry as a way for customers to immerse themselves with their favorite songs but also an opportunity for companies to advertise their artists and products. The sheet music for “T.B. Blues’” was published in 1931 by the Southern Music Company – though it was based in New York City. It includes the then standard “Try it on your Piano” introduction page and advertisements for other Jimmie Rodgers songs and that of the Carter Family and band-leader Hoagy Carmichael. The front cover features a portrait of Jimmie Rodgers in his signature suit and straw hat, under a banner with the song title and the curious inclusion of a moonshine bottle, a pair of dice, and the silhouette of a man laying in bed with his chest to his knees, perhaps an allegory to the pain suffered by tuberculosis patients.
Known as the “Singing Brakeman,” a reference to his time working on railroad lines, Rodgers is considered the “father of country music” for his influence across country, rhythm and blues, bluegrass and rock n’ roll. An inductee of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame, Rodgers is known for such hits as “In the Jailhouse Now,” “Blue Yodel No. 9” (with Louis Armstrong) and “T for Texas,” and has been covered by legendary artists Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Allison Krauss, among others. Tragically, his promising career lasted only six years and was cut short after a long battle with tuberculosis, when he succumbed to the disease in 1933, at the age of 35.
Got me worried soul, I can’t even sleep at night
I’ve got the T.B. blues
In Jimmie Rodgers’ lifetime, tuberculosis was “one of the two leading causes of death in the early 1900s” and the “dominant chronic infectious disease of the first half of the twentieth century.” Tuberculosis — known also as consumption, phthisis, white plague, and “the robber of youth” throughout history — is caused by the bacteria, mycobacterium tuberculosis.
The earliest written description of TB dates back three millennia to ancient India and in AD 174, the Greek physician Galen described its symptoms as “fever, sweating, coughing and blood stained sputum.” Thought to be hereditary until the late 19th century, German scientist, Robert Koch, discovered that tuberculosis was an airborne infectious bacterial disease that could be transmitted from person to person.
According to a study by Harvard University Library, tuberculosis caused more deaths in industrialized countries than any other disease during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a romanticized view of tuberculosis had sprung up in the 1800s as the disease came to be associated with artists and literature. Some believed that suffering from the disease increased creativity, “heightened sensitivity and spiritual purity.” Writer Robert Louis Stevenson suffered from tuberculosis for most of his life and artists such as Emily Bronte, John Keats, and Frederic Chopin all died from the disease at an early age.
Alexander Dumas claimed, “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after each emotion that was at all sensational” while Lord Byron quipped that he “should like to die of consumption”.
Yet for many suffering from tuberculosis, the disease could feel like a slow death. Tuberculosis can attack the body in different ways, from the lungs to the kidneys, brain and spine. TB bacteria can settle in the lungs and begin to grow and move through the blood to other parts of the body. Not all who contract tuberculosis become sick leading to the distinction between Latent TB Infection (asymptomatic) and TB Disease (symptomatic).
Like many who suffered from the progressive form of tuberculosis, Rodgers’ battle was prolonged and extremely painful, coughing up bloody sputum for years and suffering from chronic fatigue. At the time of the recording of “T.B. Blues” in 1931, Rodgers had already been living with the disease (the symptomatic TB Disease) for over seven years. He had been diagnosed in 1924 by a family physician after suffering a hemorrhage (Porterfield, p. 53).
When it rained down sorrow, It rained all over me
‘Cause my body rattles, Like a train on that old S.P. [Southern Pacific RR]
Prior to the innovations of vaccines, medication, and antibiotics that have helped fight tuberculosis, most physicians could only prescribe a nutritious diet, rest and fresh air. In the late 1800s and early 20th century, tuberculosis sanatoriums were established throughout the United States and Europe where TB patients could isolate and rest.
However, relaxation, bedrest, quarantine and sanatorium care weren’t necessarily options for those suffering from poverty. Not working meant not getting paid, and the same was true for Jimmie Rodgers. Particularly for a musician just reaching stardom, taking time from work was not an option. He spent time in sanatoriums and even lived in Asheville, NC for its cooler climate and mountain air; but he continued to perform, even against the recommendations of physicians and family (Porterfield, p.53). Rodgers would on occasion stumble out of bed to perform while fighting a fever and went so far as to tape plaster to his ribs to dull the pain and prevent from breathing too deeply. When he couldn’t stop coughing onstage, fans were known to applaud sympathetically and shout, “Spit ‘er up, Jimmie and sing some more” (Porterfield; p. 115; 279).
Eventually, the disease and its complications would prove too much. Jimmy Rodgers lost his battle with tuberculosis on May 26, 1933. Ever the tireless performer, Rodgers spent his final days recording music in a New York studio, cutting his last record two days before his death.
Contributed by Benjamin Serby, Visiting Assistant Professor, Adelphi University; 2019-2022 Recipient of a Harry H. Harkins T’73 Travel Grant for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History
With the assistance of a Harry H. Harkins, Jr., Travel Grant, I visited the Rubenstein Library in the summer of 2019 to carry out research for my dissertation, an intellectual history of the gay liberation movement in the United States in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the Rubenstein Library, I consulted several collections, including the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA) Archives and the Faith Holsaert papers, with the intention of tracing the reception of certain understandings of “liberation” in the movement through the lives of key activists, the records of organizations, and the extensive print culture that spanned the country during this time.
In the course of my visit, I encountered a surprising number of fascinating documents that were authored by incarcerated queer and trans people who overcame censorship and the threat of retaliation to demand assistance and recognition from activists and readers on the outside. These sources informed an article that I subsequently published in the Journal of the History of Sexuality.[i] One relevant item is a note to readers of the Atlanta underground newspaper Great Speckled Bird, dated September 5, 1972, which explains that a prisoner, H. Alan “Bunny” Vaughan, was being punished by the authorities for having smuggled photographs of the Atlanta Penitentiary’s segregated gay cell block to the newspaper. One of those illicit images accompanies the report, which praises Vaughan for his commitment to “the fight for dignity and self-respect within prison walls.” This document (which, it should be noted, did not appear in a specifically “gay” publication) raises a number of questions about the oppressive and discriminatory conditions faced by queer and trans prisoners, their relationship to the gay liberation movement, and the role of the press—particularly the underground press—as a means of publicizing the struggles of some of the most marginalized members of the LGBT community.
A related document that stopped me in my tracks when I first encountered it is the founding statement of the National Gay Prisoners Coalition (NGPC), an obscure organization that was established at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla sometime in the early 1970s. The undated text calls for the abolition of sodomy laws, demands an investigation into the treatment of queer and trans prisoners, and urges members of the LGBT community to join and support the new organization. Its author, who is listed as C. Chris Wheeler, wrote “for publication” in pen at the top, but it is unlikely that this text was ever published. Prior to visiting the Rubinstein Library, I had seen Wheeler’s name in print on a number of occasions. A transgender inmate at Walla Walla, they published countless open letters in several gay liberationist newspapers between 1970 and 1973 that detailed their mistreatment and that of their fellow inmates, appealed to readers for material and emotional support, and facilitated political organizing among queer and trans prisoners across institutions. The NGPC statement is a testament to the extent of that organizing.
Just as they challenged a largely middle-class movement to extend its solidarities to the poor, the nonwhite, and the incarcerated, materials such as these provoked me to incorporate a much broader array of social actors into my narrative and to realize that the activist and print networks that I was mapping were far more expansive and inclusive than I had initially thought. Still, we are left with only a trace, and many questions remain unanswered. What became of Vaughan? Wheeler? The other Walla Walla prisoners? The NGPC?
[i] Serby, Benjamin. “‘Not to Produce Newspapers, but Committed Radicals’: The Underground Press, the New Left, and the Gay Liberation Counterpublic in the United States, 1965-1976.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 32, no. 1, Jan. 2023. http://dx.doi.org/10.7560/JHS32101
Post contributed by Michelle Wolfson, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern.
This exhibit is based on a lot of things. Its main foci are the horrors and heroes of Hiroshima. Three out of forty-five hospitals remained standing after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, though greatly damaged still, and according to numerous resources, 90-93% of doctors and nurses were killed or injured. The medical staff who survived suffered from pain—physical, emotional, and otherwise—and extreme uncertainty and fear, but gave the best care possible to their community. Even with rumors of the atomic bomb making for unsafe conditions for seventy-five years, they did not leave; and some came from outside the city with offers of help and supplies.
But what are the actual things in this exhibit and what do they mean? For me, it is an exhibit based on letters. Letters to oneself in the form of a diary as seen in the Japanese manuscript written for the medical journal Teishin Igaku. A letter from an artist friend, relieved and grateful to hear of his friend’s survival, in the form of a beautiful scroll. The scroll’s contents were translated and sent by letter to eventually be included in the book that became Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945 . A letter—and it is one of many—about the book and the process of it, which serves as a window into the grace, gratitude, and genuine respect and friendship between two doctors. This even became a quest for a missing letter, perhaps Einstein’s last one before passing, still lost but, for me, an education in the world of archives anyway.
It is a story based on letters. This exhibit is my own contribution—a love letter to Hiroshima Diary and its creators, for teaching me about Hiroshima in a new way, and the medical staff and people who survived, as well as those that did not. This is what it is to me, and this is what I wanted to share with you. I hope you find meaning in it as I have.
The exhibit, The Horrors and Heroes of Hiroshima, will be on display from August 17 to October 1, 2023, in the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Room. An online exhibit is also available here. This exhibition was curated by Michelle Wolfson, the Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern. Wolfson is a graduate student in Library Science at East Carolina University and half-Japanese.
A decade-plus institutional battle occurred between United States television networks, set manufacturers, and governmental agencies over implementing a technical color standard for TV. The National Television Standards Committee (NTSC)’s second standard, implemented in 1953, included color, allowing color television to compete with black-and-white in manufactured sets and programming. Finally, in the early 1970s, color television sales overtook those of black-and-white sets, and all three major television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) produced and aired color programs. However, several scares about the safety of color television sets from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s complicated the technology’s hard-won prominence. The radiation levels of color TV sets formed one primary concern. As Susan Murray documents in her history of color television, the panic was “likely exaggerated in its scope and potential dangers,” yet:
It succeeded in bringing to the surface anxieties about the connection between vision problems and television screens, a more general concern over the possibility of radiation leaks from everyday technological objects, a growing mistrust in science toward the decade’s end, and an underlying fear of nuclear war (Murray 2018, 247).
The Rubenstein Library’s recently acquired Consumer Reports Archives shed light on a second safety scare that plagued color television, previously undocumented in Murray and other scholars’ histories: fires.
Relevant manuscripts from the Technical Department include correspondence with parties as diverse as television consumers, set manufacturers, government agencies, and legal firms, in addition to enclosed reports and ephemera like the National Commission on Product Safety’s press release from January 27, 1970, which publicized the color TV fire hazards. These manuscripts extend our understanding of cultural anxieties about color television beyond the radiation problem.
The collection’s first mention of the fire hazard controversy appears in a letter from consumer Frederick P. Schmitt to the Consumers Union on October 16, 1969. Schmitt attached a clipping of a Newsday article, “U.S. Is Checking TV Fire Danger,” published the same day, which reported on a presidential commission to investigate the fire hazards of color TV sets.
Schmitt complained to the union that the government protected “the alleged culprits” by omitting the manufacturers’ names and inquired whether the union knew of “these potential killers” so he might prevent the “risk” of “danger” and “possibly death” from his color set. Unfortunately, per the response from Monte Florman, Associate Technical Director at the Consumers Union, the presidential commission refused to release information to the union and the public.
The National Commission on Product Safety’s release on the matter advised that “approximately 22 million color TV sets” were in use at the time and provided a staggering statistic about the disproportionate flammability of color television sets compared with their black-and-white counterparts: “a smoke and fire incident ratio” of “about 40 to 1.”
Although the commission’s press release applauded “the industry for its efforts” to ameliorate the hazards, not all television set manufacturers handled the controversy in this manner. We observe this fact in the collection’s most extensive exchange about the fire controversy, a series of letters from 1970 between consumer Melvyn L. Marks of Silver Springs, Maryland, Sylvania Entertainment Products, and the Consumers Union. Sylvania’s lackluster response to Marks, whose 21LC 28 M set experienced a fire in its “high voltage flyback transformer,” speaks to manufacturers’ inconsistent approach to such a crisis.
After repeatedly reaching out to Sylvania about their intentions to “correct or pay for correction of these faulty units,” which “other companies have publicized that they will,” Sylvania subjected Marks to the rigamarole of numerous follow-up communications and a comprehensive service history. Marks signs off in a particularly zesty follow-up, “Awaiting your long overdue reply.”
In addition to consumers, insurance companies and their legal representatives communicated with Consumer Reports. In a letter dated June 3, 1970, San Francisco-based attorney Warren Sullivan wrote the union on behalf of his client, Balboa-Newport Insurance Company, seeking the union’s assistance in “[recovering] [a] loss of $11,000, which occurred by reason of a fire to [their] assured’s home” and which they claim was caused by the client’s Sears & Roebuck “colored television set” catching fire or exploding “in the middle of the night while the set was in the ‘turned off’ position.”
These concerns over the flammability of color television sets continued into the mid-1970s. Tragically, some of these fires proved fatal. In 1973, a memo from the newly formed United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), launched a year prior by the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), announced “a possible fire hazard in 12,000 Zenith 19-inch table model color television sets,” in one instance causing the death of “several members of the family.’
This brief glimpse into an overlooked scandal in U.S. television history is just one example of the diverse research trajectories that the Consumer Reports Archives facilitate. In addition to consumer electronics, the Technical Department records collection includes materials on testing procedures, methods, data, and evaluations for appliances, automobiles, chemicals, foods, public services, special projects, and textiles. The collection is available at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, and the finding aid can be found here.
Consumer Product Safety Commission, memorandum. September 13, 1973. Washington D.C. Consumer Reports. Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Melvyn L. Marks to Sylvania Entertainment Productions Division, letter. February 16, 1970. Silver Springs, M.D. Consumer Reports, Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Melvyn L. Marks to Sylvania Entertainment Productions Division, letter. May 18, 1970. Silver Springs, M.D. Consumer Reports, Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Susan Murray. 2018. Bright Signals: A History of Color Television. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
National Commission on Product Safety, press release. “Commission Releases Information on Color TV Hazards.” January 27, 1970. Washington D.C. Consumer Reports. Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Warren Sullivan to Consumer Reports, letter. June 3, 1970. San Francisco, C.A. Consumer Reports. Technical Department records, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
A Q&A with Jeremy Montgomery, PhD candidate in History at Mississippi State University in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Node of Excellence and a History of Medicine Collections travel grant recipient.
What is your research project?
My dissertation examines the medical armamentarium in the United States between 1800-1860. Taking a synchronic view, my project seeks to describe medical education, knowledge production, and treatment options between the regions. It takes seriously the diverse medical marketplace by incorporating discussions about “regular” and “irregular” forms of medicine. In addition to the types of medical care, my project examines the black and white body, free and enslaved, also. Lastly, my dissertation discusses and describes symptomology, therapeutics, and Materia Medica within the early-to-mid nineteenth century.
What collection(s) did you use from Duke’s History of Medicine Collections?
What surprised you, or was an unexpected find, in the collection you used?
I was surprised by my findings in the M.M. Haworth Diary. From the opening pages (see above) to his prescription list, I found this to be a rich primary source. This source list the diseases and their prescription(s). The multiple prescriptions are revealing because this time period does not connect a particular pathogen to a disease so it may be argued that the treatments will be different. In addition, this source listed the dosages. The apothecary symbols next to the prescriptions allow greater depth with regards to the medical armamentarium in the nineteenth-century. In short, it was a great day!
Anything else you’d like to share?
Yes! The History of Medicine Collections travel grant was my first travel grant I have received in my professional career, and it was generous. Furthermore, the staff at the Rubenstein Library are incredible. I had the pleasure of meeting Rachel Ingold—Curator, History of Medicine Collections. Rachel helped me navigate the application process and invited me for coffee when I arrived. If she invites you for coffee, please accept. We discussed my project some more and she was able to point me to additional resources that I was able to view on my week-long trip. In fact, the M.M. Haworth Diary is an example of an additional source that Rachel was able to help me review on my trip.
Post contributed by Vincent Carret, Part-time Research Scholar for the Economists’ Papers Archive and Visiting Scholar at the Center for the History of Political Economy.
The Leonid Hurwicz papers are now fully reopened for research as part of the Economists’ Papers Archive. Over the past few months, the bulk of the 252-box collection has been reprocessed by inventorying, describing, and rearranging its contents, in particular the now distinct Research and Writings series. The following blog post describes Hurwicz’s professional trajectory, as it emerged from his papers, and outlines some files present in the collection.
Leonid Hurwicz was a Polish-American economist who immigrated to America in 1940 after fleeing Poland, which is documented in several folders. While Hurwicz never received a diploma in economics, he worked with and learned from some of the most recognized economists during the 1940s. When he arrived in the United States, Hurwicz joined the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics, which had just recently moved to Chicago. The Commission was the major driver in the development of econometrics, a new field of economic inquiry bringing together economic theory, mathematics, and statistics, and Hurwicz participated in the discussions surrounding the use of statistics in economics (collaborating for instance with Theodore Anderson).
At the end of the 1940s, the focus of the Cowles Commission turned to the theory of resource allocation, a field of economics inquiring into the best use of scarce resources in interdependent economic systems. Hurwicz, who was recruited by Walter Heller at the University of Minnesota in 1951, followed this shift. His work during the 1950s focused on the study of abstract market mechanisms, as documented in his collaborations with Kenneth Arrow and Hirofumi Uzawa. One question that became central to his work was the use of information in centralized and decentralized economic systems. Hurwicz built and studied economic models dealing with this problem, leading him to several long-standing collaborations with Thomas Marschak and Stanley Reiter.
During the 1960s, Hurwicz explored new ways of modeling the exchange of information, developing the concept of incentive compatibility to take into account individual agency in the distribution of information. His writings in the early 1970s document these new questions, Hurwicz’s answers, and the tools that he used, including game theory, which was also used to study different institutional arrangements. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hurwicz started working on a book collecting the state of the art on mechanism design, which brought together his interests in decentralization, information, incentives, and institutions. A highly formalized, mathematical endeavor, its theory and applications to auctions have led to several Nobel Prizes, including one for Hurwicz in 2007. His book, Designing Economic Mechanisms, coauthored with Stanley Reiter, was published in 2006.
Hurwicz’s success can be measured by the number of manuscripts preserved in his papers, his many correspondents, and the amount of working papers that he received from colleagues. His success also hinged upon his central place in the Department of Economics at the University of Minnesota, which became a powerhouse of economics in the 1970s-1980s.
Hurwicz’s work was abstract in a mathematical way, although always related to questions raised by changes in society. Among the most surprising items in the collection, perhaps attesting to Hurwicz’s ability to consider a problem under its most pure and abstract forms, I was amazed to find dozens of doodles that he made while taking notes. “Doodle” does not do justice to the intricate shapes, lines, circles, and points that make up these drawings. Seeing them next to the models and demonstrations that made up Hurwicz’s work, I was reminded of the Italian futurist movement and its celebration of the modern, industrial society. As I learned more about Hurwicz’s interests and work while processing his papers, these drawings became for me a metaphorical illustration of the mutation of economics from “political economy” to “economic science.”
Research travel grants of up to $1500 are offered by the following Centers and research areas:
Archive of Documentary Arts
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Travel Grants
Harry H. Harkins T’73 Travel Grants for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History
History of Medicine Collections
Human Rights Archive
John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture
John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History
Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture (Mary Lily Research Grants)
Each grant offering is specific to the associated subject area and collection holdings, and our archivists can help you determine eligibility for your project. We encourage applications from students at any level of education; faculty and teachers; visual and performing artists; writers; filmmakers; public historians; and independent researchers. Applicants must reside beyond a 100-mile radius of Durham, N.C., and may not be current Duke students or employees. Awards are paid as reimbursement after completion of the research visit(s). The deadline for applications will be Friday, February 24, 2023, at 6:00 pm EST. Recipients should be announced by the end of April 2023, and grants will be for travel during May 2023-June 2024.
An online information session will be held Thursday, January 19, 2023, 1-2 EST. This program will review application requirements, offer tips for creating a successful application, and include an opportunity for attendees to ask questions. This program will be recorded, and posted online afterwards. Register for the session here. Further questions may be directed to AskRL@duke.edu with the subject line “Travel Grants.”
[An earlier version of this post had the incorrect date for the info session. It will be held Thursday, January 19.]
Post contributed by Michelle Wolfson, Josiah Charles Trent History of Medicine Intern.
The History of Medicine special collection houses many exciting—and, dare we say, sexy—artifacts that draw the interest of students, staff, and researchers. The carved ivory memento mori is a thing of beauty. The amputation set invites people to picture themselves on a battlefield during the Civil War. Anatomy and dissection are contemplated as one looks at flapbooks and manikins.
But what draws me in? The written word. The books, the pamphlets, the zines—they are the voices echoing to me through time.
With abortion constantly in the news at this cataclysmic time, and with a young child with many questions about puberty, I threw myself into the History of Medicine Collections as its latest intern, wanting to know, “What do we say about puberty? About menstruation? About abortion? What do doctors say? What do mothers say? What does corporate America say? For heaven’s sake, what do we tell the children?!” Here is a small sampling of what the special collection offers.
The Ladies’ Physician: A Guide for Women in the Treatment of their Ailments by a London Physician is a book from 1884. This guide has several redeeming factors. It makes clear that it is the mother’s duty to inform their daughters of what to expect before menstruation begins. While not always feasible (what does one do when there is not a maternal figure in the child’s life?), I generally like the attitude that we do not leave young girls and women in the dark regarding their health. In some ways, the text is very thorough in covering many common issues that women might experience, including the more benign, such as leukorrhea (“the whites”, or simply, vaginal discharge), to the more serious, such as tumors and endometritis. This was somewhat shocking to me as, anecdotally, I hear from many women that their endometritis was ignored by health providers for many years before being properly diagnosed. Pregnancy and many of the possibilities an expectant mother might experience as the body changes are also covered—from varicose veins to constipation to neuralgia of the face.
The section on pregnancy begins with a quick history of how much has been discovered recently—such as how physicians can now say with certainty that a person is pregnant by using a stethoscope and auscultation. Only sixty years ago, our London Physician tells us, did a woman claim to be pregnant by the Holy Ghost and had many followers who believed her, including people in the medical field. (Actually, the London Physician says “medical men”, and I wondered if midwives were at all involved.) Different signs of pregnancy are written about, but we are also told that there may not be any signs at all, at which point, a story is told about a Mrs. G—–, which feels straight out of a modern showing of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant”. Neither Mrs. G—– nor the neighborhood physician ever guessed she was pregnant, and indeed she was in labor and they still did not suspect that she was giving birth. Ten hours into labor, another doctor examined her and realized what was happening, though the expectant parents still did not believe it. The story has a happy ending—healthy mom, healthy and loved daughter. The London Physician also tells us that the opposite can occur, when a person thinks they are pregnant when they are not, whether it is due to false signs from tumors, an abnormal menstrual cycle, or simply gas or muscles twitching.
As one might expect, The Ladies’ Physician has its problems and questionable moments, too. The causes of puberty and menstruation are written about obtusely—I could not guarantee that a person without some prior knowledge of menstruation would completely understand what the book is saying happens during “the process which marks woman as woman.” (I will not even get into how this is not how we define “woman” anymore because now we know not all women experience menstruation.) The text also does not include visuals. At another time, the London Physician gives somehow not enough information by giving us too much information. We are initially told the average pregnancy is about nine or ten months, but the London Physician goes on for a distressing couple of pages about how some countries and cultures think that the duration of pregnancy lasts longer–three hundred days, or even going into years, the most being four years. (FYI: Elephants have the longest pregnancies of any land mammal, somewhere between eighteen to twenty-three months.) I do not know if this was simply an interesting point about varying belief systems, or to go back to the point about how physicians have recently learned more about pregnancy, or to cover all the bases of how long one might be pregnant in case somebody is incorrect.
One section regarding abortion was interesting to me, and I feel the need to quote it to get it exactly right. From pages 222-223, regarding severe cases of illness:
The cases in which such extreme measures are called for are of extreme rarity. It happens only when the mother’s life is in imminent and urgent peril; then it becomes a duty to act promptly and empty the uterus, and thus save the only life that can be saved, unless, indeed, it be in the later months of pregnancy, when both lives—the mother’s and the child’s—can in this manner be spared. Repulsive as it is to destroy the child, still it is the highest duty, and no hesitation should be felt in sacrificing it in circumstances stated, for unless this be done, and done promptly, not only the life of the child, but that of the mother will also be lost.
Another section about quickening was of interest from page 196. The London Physician does not think this is the moment a child is considered alive, instead that the
…embryo is alive from the first, though its life is a lower form of life than it is after the fifth or sixth month, just as the life of a child an hour before birth is a lower form of life than that it possesses an hour after birth.
They do not know when the child possesses a soul but
…[l]et it suffice here to say that from the time of conception there is life in the embryo, simple though it be when compared with the higher life of a born child or an adult man, yet too complex to be solved by the greatest philosopher.
I think the London Physician dropped the mic there, so I will end here as well.
Some of this blog post was written tongue-in-cheek, but that does not discount how I think on this book. In 1884, women had something to refer to that gave them reassuring and helpful information regarding their bodies. The information is given in a matter-of-fact manner, not sensationalized or hidden in shame (though we could work on some bits for clarification). It still leaves me with many questions—how many people had access to this book? Who was the London Physician? What did people do if they did not have access to a book like this? I am assuming they sought other women for advice, or at least I am hoping they did.
Post contributed by Haleigh Yaspan, Independent Researcher
Pregnancy and birth, as universal and unvarying phenomena, can offer a revealing and reflective view into a specific historical chapter. Careful attention to the dynamic nature of the circumstances that have historically defined the experiences of pregnant and birthing women can help us contextualize and better understand our present moment. The relationship is bidirectional: so too does an exploration of historical factors help shed light on the rationale for trends in the medicalization of birth. The aid of a generous History of Medicine travel grant allowed me to spend time with a number of fascinating collections at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library that can offer such insight. These included, for example, the collection of medical instruments from the practice of Dr. LM Draper, the Louise Hortense Branscomb papers, and the Wilton G. Fritz Collection Artifacts.
In the United States, the circumstances of birth changed dramatically toward the end of the Progressive Era. Prior to the twentieth century, the care of pregnant and birthing women was most commonly the domain of midwives and other female practitioners, who were not incorporated into a recognized professional body. The shift toward a physician-centric approach can be traced back to a revolution within the medical profession, beginning in the late 1800s and continuing well into the following century. The wide variety of obstetrical tools surviving from Dr. LM Draper’s twentieth-century collection offers insight into standard practices of American physicians of the day. I was particularly intrigued by the array of various iterations of forceps, insinuated as they are in the medical profession’s early- and mid-century proclivity toward instrumental intervention in labor, an intentional move to set physicians apart from low-interventionist midwives.
The glass slides for Dr. Carter’s OB/GYN lectures provided a window into the education aspect of the medical approach to obstetrics. Such primary sources set forth the gold standard of mid-century medical education of the day. The use of visuals in the slides informs an understanding of the historical pedagogical practices in this field, while the language employed clues us into the sociocultural milieu that circumscribed and defined medical education of the day.
The medicalization of birth that took shape in the early twentieth century has attracted both celebration and criticism. Many have critiqued physicians, both in this period and since, for their quickness to instrumentally intervene in birth and their failure to outperform more hands-off midwives in terms of clinical outcomes. In the early twentieth century, Abraham Flexner, under the aegis of the Carnegie Foundation, set out to survey the state of medical education in the United States and Canada. His 1910 report eviscerated the medical profession, suggesting that a vast majority of American doctors were woefully unqualified and had received what little education they possessed from institutions of highly dubious rigor and quality. “But the very worst showing,” he noted, “is made in the matter of obstetrics.”
Dispatches from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University