In 1837, when 19-year-old Queen Victoria ascended the British throne, medicine was a bleak and brutal business. Operations were performed without pain relief while the standard medical therapies were bloodletting, purging and dosing with toxic potions. But that summer a promising medical innovation crossed the Channel from Paris: mesmerism. Most of the British medical establishment scorned this new-fangled French idea but one doctor, the highly esteemed physician John Elliotson, embraced mesmerism with zeal. For 18 months in 1837 and 1838 Elliotson staged dramatic demonstrations on his patients at University College Hospital which drew fascinated audiences, provoked sensational headlines and – ultimately – split the medical profession.
The Mesmerist: John Elliotson (1791-1868) is an exhibition at the Library of the Royal Society of Medicine. 1 Wimpole Street, LONDON W1G 0AE
This exhibition tells the story of John Elliotson and his battle to promote mesmerism – hypnotism as it was later renamed – in the face of furious opposition from the medical establishment and medical press. Elliotson was President of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London in 1833, and it was during his term of office that the Society was granted a Royal Charter to become, in 1834, the Royal Medical and Chirurgical Society.
Robert Greenwood, Heritage Officer, The Royal Society of Medicine Library
Although it often seems like everything is on Wikipedia (the main page currently features articles on the oldest living Pole, the feathers of birds, and 1894 flash floods in Austria, for example!) there are many areas that could benefit from some substantial improvements, and the history of medicine is one such field. So on 11th April, the British Society for the History of Medicine brought people together at the Wellcome Library to celebrate some of the medics, places, and events that deserve a more prominent place in the online historical record.
The Viewing Room was packed with a mixture of historians, medics, students and local wiki-editors. We began the day with inspirational talks from Iain Macintyre and Emily Mayhew, who took historic images as their focus. As we listened to them speak, topics for improvement were rapidly added to the event page – the history section of the medical illustration page needs work, and the moribund wards which Mayhew mentioned seem like a topic deserving of a page.
Most of those attending had done little or no editing of Wikipedia before, but nowadays it’s very straightforward to get started. Everyone logged in and the Wiki-editing part of the day began with new editors introducing themselves on Wikipedia and exploring some of the page-features they’d never used before, such as Talk pages where editors discuss articles and History pages where you can see every single change ever made to a page. By lunchtime, the room was buzzing with conversations about the talks and about which pages people were planning to tackle!
After lunch, Ross MacFarlane provided a quick tour of the online resources of the Wellcome Library that can be used as sources and inspiration for editing, such as the Digital Collections that are available to all users and Databases and Journals that can be accessed free with a Library card. Nusa Faric talked about her research into why people contribute to medical pages on Wikipedia, and inspired us by showing how many people can benefit from improved articles and introducing us to Wikipedia Zero (a project to provide Wikipedia free of charge on mobile phones, particularly in developing markets). Fired up and ready to go, the group dived in to editing! Some began creating pages from scratch in their Sandbox, whilst others launched into making improvements or corrections on existing pages.
New pages have already been created for leprosy doctor Isabel Kerr; Beryl Corner, who halved newborn mortality rates; cancer researcher Henry Wade; Mary Sturge, who conducted pioneering work on alcoholism; a tool for dental extraction called Coupland’s elevators; and Gilbert Primrose, surgeon to King James I. Pages for Edward Berdoe and Florence Barrett have been improved, the date of publication of De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septum by Vesalius has been corrected on the History section of the Medical illustration page, and a fascinating snippet about the re-enactment of surgery has been added to the Historical accuracy section of the page on the television series The Crown. Other pages in the works include a draft on psychiatrist and mental health campaigner Doris Odlum. Impressive work for such a short time!
Readers are already enjoying this work too – just counting the brand new pages created as part of the editathon, they have been viewed 498 times already (in just a single week!).
There is still more to be done though. A list of the Presidents of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh shows that many of these eminent figures are yet to have articles, and many of the women doctors listed on the event page still need pages creating or improving. These themes tie in perfectly with two of the themes of the BSHM Congress this year: Women in Medicine and Scotland’s Contribution and Influence. So if you find yourself inspired by a paper in Edinburgh this September, and want to share fascinating stories from the history of medicine with a wider audience, consider joining the Wiki-editing! There are lots of BSHM members who can give you pointers on getting started, and you’re very welcome to contact me at the Wellcome Library too.
To mark International Women’s Day (8th March) the archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh has published an interesting blog on the little-known story of a pioneering female doctor, Caroline Nompozolo, “the first woman of colour from the Union of South Africa to qualify in medicine”. (Children’s Newspaper, Oct 1943)
Robert Fludd. Line engraving by T. de Bry, 1645, after Matthäus Merianafter Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
A respected physician, Censor four times of the Royal College of Physicians, Robert Fludd was also an anatomist, a friend of William Harvey whose experiments he witnessed, and well-respected by both James I, and by Charles I who awarded him the income from Crown land in Suffolk. All this was perhaps nothing unusual among those who stood well in the senior world of that hierarchical society, a society to which he belonged by birth and by his own medical reputation, and his father’s reputation as an honest and well-rewarded public servant of the redoubtable Queen Elizabeth I.
It was less usual that he was also a distinguished and well known neo-platonist, hermetic philosopher and alchemist, who summed up in himself and in his numerous and large-scale publications the pre-scientific synthesis of cosmic harmony; that is, the intimate and harmonic relationship of the sentient platonic universe with the sentient human being. This was the world before the Cartesian ‘cogito, ergo sum’, which divides the observing ego from its observed subject, a definitive change in perception which has revolutionised human culture since the mid-17th century.
Fludd’s philosophy is epitomised in his magnificent if uncompleted Utriusque Cosmi … Historia 1617-1626 (‘The History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm’), and in his Medicina Catholica 1629-1631 (‘Universal Medicine’) whose lavish, graphic and cogent illustrations illuminate for us the rich world-picture of the Renaissance multi-layered mind, of the prescientific magus, which perceived by metaphor and symbol rather than by our logic. It is not surprising that his illustrations are increasingly used in works on Renaissance literature, philosophy, art and culture. His images speak louder than words. And they are some of the finest and most detailed illustrations, published during that period.
Caught between the old world of symbol and metaphor and the new world of rigorous investigation and scientific experiment (which he also exercised in practical demonstrations of anatomy), Fludd provides for us a passage back to an integrated and sentient universe. Though few of us could support the analogical base on which his system is founded, his symbolism may still speak validly to us today. It is no bad thing to understand the past from within. Our forebears deserve respect, understanding, and even empathy. In history, as in anthropology (of which history is a part) it is possible to maintain participant / observer status. History then ceases to be entirely an account of the past.
Further reading: Godwin J. Robert Fludd: hermetic philosopher and surveyor of two worlds. London: Thomas & Hudson, 1979.
Robin Price – British Society for the History of Medicine