Working with 19th Century Medical and Health Periodicals Workshop featured in The Lancet

Medical Periodicals: Mining the Past, by Oxford based science writer Georgina Ferry, has been published in The Lancet (Volume 385, number 9987, 27 June 2015) and features a number of the papers presented at the workshop held on 30 May 2015. The article discusses how while medical periodicals contain a wealth of historical data, they also present various challenges to today’s researchers.

The article is available on The Lancet website

New Directions in Drinking Studies, a conference at the University of Leicester

L0007439 Cruikshank: The drunkard's children Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Son and daughter in gin-shop. Engraving The drunkard's children George Cruikshank Published: 1848 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Last weekend the Drinking Studies Network held its second major conference, ‘New Directions in Drinking Studies’ at the University of Leicester. The Network brings together scholars from a range of fields to explore drink from perspectives ranging from the sociological to the literary. Far from being simply a euphemism for spending the weekend ‘studying’ in the pub, the weekend offered a full programme of papers that touched on everything from Welsh craft cider to champagne, middle-class domestic drinking to teen ‘pre-loading’, and Roman taverns to British village pubs.

A recurrent theme throughout the conference was how closely alcohol is tied to national identity and notions of ‘tradition’. The Welsh cider producers interviewed by Emma-Jayne Abbots all had specific ideas about what constituted an ‘authentic’ cider, and this often extended beyond simple ingredients to encompass broader working practices: the role of manual labour in the process, for example, might be looked upon very differently than the use of automated machinery. The role of technologies in drinking cultures was also evident in papers addressing earlier periods and other countries. The traditional Mexican drink of pulque (made from the agave plant), discussed by Deborah Toner, had a short shelf life so that it was easily usurped in the 20th century by tequila, replacing pulque as the ‘national drink’ of Mexico.

‘Tradition’ might be a badge of honour or distinction, then, but several papers demonstrated that some ‘traditional’ drinks have also been viewed in a more negative sense. Andrew Primmer and Daniel Plata presented a fascinating history of chicha, a Colombian drink derived from maize. In the early 20th century chicha struggled to hold its own as the German Bavaria Brewery muscled in on its territory. Newspapers and public information posters began to warn drinkers against chicha, aligning the drink with crime and ill health. One brand of beer was explicit in presenting itself to consumers as a better alternative, its name literally translating as ‘No More Chicha’.

Consumers, of course, were at the centre of much of the weekend’s discussions, and alcohol’s potential for harm was examined across various periods and countries. There were obvious historical parallels between the middle-class drinking ‘subcultures’ of today, discussed by Lyn Brierly-Jones, and my own work investigating late 19th-century concerns for the lady ‘secret drinker’, with both figures provoking lively comment in the press. Perhaps what was most striking when looking at the conference papers as a whole was that, though ideas and perceptions of alcohol are very much shaped by the social and cultural context within which drinks are (or are not) consumed, the same concerns recur repeatedly: that alcohol might be consumed secretly, disrupt working practices, or harm the national health. Such concerns are often magnified in times of stress, as Stella Moss described in her paper on women workers during WWI. Moves to restrict women from entering pubs during certain hours reflected anxieties about wartime production, but also about the absence of husbands (away at the Front) as a ‘moralising influence’.

Alcohol, then, is very much bound up with our personal identity. This might be a simple matter of the drink one chooses (the more ‘ladylike’ glass of wine during a sophisticated night out, for example, as Carol Emslie et al touched upon), but can also be extended to encompass whole nations (the appeal to patriotism in the marketing of AB-InBev’s Siberian Crown lager, discussed by Graham Roberts). It is a means of exploring those identities, but also – in its ability to transform the consumer both mentally and physically – a means of cultivating multiple identities, or even, perhaps, of ‘recovering’ an authentic self. Perhaps it is this that makes alcohol so enduringly fascinating and worrying in equal measure.

You can follow the work of the Drinking Studies Network via their website and on Twitter.

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

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

Despite the wide diversity of approaches and perspectives, the workshop proved highly successful in identifying and addressing a coherent set of problems associated with research on medical periodicals. It was recognized that ongoing digitization of such material has created a critical juncture for scholars, who are forced to rethink their theoretical and methodological tools as they embrace the opportunities offered by digitization, but also grapple with its challenges. On one hand, digitization has made periodicals more easily accessible and available to a wider public, it has led to the creation of digital platforms which allow researchers to track changes in disease terminology or to use text-mining techniques to identify structures, co-references and relations. On the other hand, however, the number of digitized periodicals remains limited and there is a real danger of decontextualization when using digital resources. Researchers thus need to remember that the process of digitization is selective and that exclusions are not readily apparent. As many of the speakers have pointed out, researchers must exercise caution when using digitized periodicals as many of the sets are incomplete, there is a widespread bias towards the digitization of peer-reviewed periodicals and much of the wider publishing context, which can be gleaned from more ‘traditional’ resources like library catalogues and indexes, is missing. Participants have also pointed out that attitudes towards digitization may vary across national borders, while some countries lack the resources to digitize their materials. A more sustained collaboration between researchers, librarians and archivists as well as between scholars with varied linguistic and disciplinary expertise was advocated. Furthermore, researchers are encouraged to establish a proactive relationship with relevant institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons and the Wellcome Library, whose recent digitization efforts include popular titles like the Chemist and Druggist, to publicize their work with periodicals via feature articles and blogs, to join discussion lists, etc.

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The papers presented have also demonstrated that medical and health periodicals lend themselves to a variety of theoretical and methodological uses. Apart from providing insights into a range of medical debates such as those connected with the health of adolescent girls, medical publishing on sexual knowledge and attempts to bring proprietary medicines like chlorodyne under the remit of the law, the periodicals can also illuminate how scientific discoveries circulate (as seen in a late nineteenth-century example from Germany which publicized a formula for making ‘meat’ from industrial waste) or how photography is used to document and construct illness. In addition, medical periodicals can also be helpful to document practices of tropical medicine, the history of women doctors, especially in the absence of other types of sources, as in the case of Russia, or to demonstrate how medicine and science more generally are employed in projects of nation-building and how the medical press can function as an instrument of propaganda (the case of Portugal). Many papers highlighted the dynamic, multivocal and often fragmented nature of medical periodicals as a genre. Speakers discussed both the content and the form of periodicals, with emphasis being placed on processes of production, circulation and consumption, the role of market forces in transforming periodicals into commodities as well as the use of technology and advertising techniques in the medical press. For example, the comparative examination of photographs in French medicine and theatre revealed how photographic technology was used to document the functioning of the brain and demonstrated the dialogical relationship between photographer on one hand and patients and actors on the other. In India, photography also provided a rare glimpse into the hospital and the zenana, but the dissemination of such material via periodicals disregarded local conventions of propriety and respectability.


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

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

Amelia Bonea, June 2015