Tag Archives: public history

Writing Early Modern Medicine for Medical Readers

Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177
Poison trials on dogs conducted by Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel in 1580. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 177

By Alisha Rankin

Years ago, in a recipe collection belonging to Countess Elisabeth of the Palatinate (1552-90), I found a fascinating entry: a copy of an official document that described trials of a poison antidote on dogs, which I described in a post on this blog. My interest in that document has expanded into an entire book project on poison trials. Because these trials feel vaguely like an antecedent to modern clinical trials (with many twists and turns along the way), I’ve found that this project has provided an exciting opportunity to introduce early modern medicine to a medical audience. Last month Justin Rivest and I had the privilege of publishing a short piece, “Medicine, Monopoly, and the Pre-Modern State: Early Clinical Trials,” in the New England Journal of Medicine. Just a few days later, I published a blog post titled “Poison Trials on Condemned Criminals under Pope Clement VII: A Medical and Moral Testimonial” for the Sperimento blog, run by the Medici Archive Project. The juxtaposition of these two pieces, of similar length and on similar topics but in two very different venues, led me to reflect on writing history for non-experts, and on how different it is to write for doctors than for historians. Because the Recipes Project blog intends to reach a wide audience, I thought it might be interesting to jot down some thoughts on the experience here.

Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.
Testimonium de verissima ac admirabili virtute olei compositi contra pestem & omnia venena (Rome, 1524), BNF.

Writing the Sperimento piece felt very familiar. The blog is intended to introduce a specific document in early modern Italian science and/or medicine, so I picked a Latin pamphlet published in 1524 on the authority of Pope Clement VII. The pamphlet described three poison trials conducted on condemned criminals and was intended to show the wondrous workings of an antidote oil created by a surgeon named Gregorio Caravita. I reflected on the religious and moral undertones of the document, and I included several footnotes with the original Latin. It was a pretty typical blog piece – fun to work on and quite helpful to write, as it forced me to sit down and meticulously make my way through the pamphlet. (I had hoped to find a recipe for the oil at the end of the pamphlet, but sadly the recipe remained Caravita’s secret – although Jo Wheeler included a later Medici version in his book.)

The NEJM piece, on the other hand, was far harder. We had to plan the article out very carefully. The word limit was officially 1,200 (although they happily ended up being a little flexible!), and it needed a lot of framing on each end. Justin is an expert in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France, and I was highlighting work from sixteenth-century Germany. That left each of us just a couple of short paragraphs to present our case from our own research and to tie everything together. This is apparently the first time the NEJM has published a piece on early modern medicine, so we tried our best to make it fit into categories that medical readers would find familiar. That meant keeping modern medicine as the standard against which we compared our historical case. It also – helpfully – forced Justin and me to come up with a coherent narrative over a long period of time.

The hardest part – for me at least – was the footnotes. The journal allowed only five references, which was very hard for two historians with two completely different sets of research that drew on archives as well as printed sources. Justin and I worked and worked to get it down to the requisite number and felt pretty good about the result. Then the peer reviews came back – and the editor clarified that five references meant individual references, not footnotes. Because some of our footnotes contained multiple sources, we had to cut out an additional six references. Uff. We simply had to give up on documenting everything, and I learned how uncomfortable that made me. Would historians think that the article was shoddily researched? Maybe, but I kept reminding myself that historians were not the main audience, an important distinction when I had to choose between my archive and an important English-language journal article. Were I writing for historians, I almost certainly would have picked the archive, to show all the great (hard!) research I’d done. In this case, I went with the article, on the theory that an interested reader could follow up with it more easily.

The fun part of writing for the NEJM was thinking about how to make early modern medicine seem something other than “wrong.” We went for the basic takeaway point that trials (even in a very, very early form) have been used to assess drugs for a really long time. I also did a short podcast with the journal, to expand on certain points. I didn’t have the questions in advance, and I couldn’t help but cringe a bit when the interviewer straightforwardly referred to our historical actors as “scientists” and “researchers,” but in some ways that was validating, as it suggested he was treating our subject with respect.

A truly interesting coda was what happened afterwards. Both the NEJM article and the Sperimento post made the rounds on social media. Interestingly, the latter appears to have been of more interest to early modernists, at least judging by the re-tweets I saw on my Twitter feed (perhaps those footnotes mattered after all!). The NEJM piece, in contrast, really did reach physicians. While we did not receive any major press attention, Tweets came literally from all over the world. Looking at this metrics map of where the article was read was really fascinating:

NEJM page views

I hadn’t quite thought about how far-reaching a top medical journal is – that short essay may well be the most widely read thing I ever write. Most gratifyingly, I received a lovely e-mail from a former student – now a doctor – who was delighted to see his old professor pop up in an unexpected place. But overall, the consensus from Twitter appeared to be “Wow! I had no idea that people were testing drugs that early!” In some ways, that is exactly why we do public history – to make people look at the past a little bit differently and, hopefully, to put modern trends in context. Being forced out of your comfort zone (footnotes!) also makes you think carefully about what message you really want to share. And of course readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that recipes can lead you to all sorts of unexpected places!

Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement

By Paula Johnson

 Over several wintry days in January, at a sprawling hotel in midtown Manhattan, members of the American Historical Association and affiliated societies gamely selected from a virtual cornucopia of panel discussions, roundtables, and special sessions built around the theme, “History and the Other Disciplines.” Those interested in food studies—an inherently multidisciplinary field—found relevant sessions salted throughout the schedule, reflecting the field’s growth in recent years. I participated in one of these sessions, “Serving Up Food History and Mastering the Art of Public Engagement,” a panel organized and chaired by Amanda B. Moniz, assistant director of the National History Center of the AHA. The panel brought together historians to explore the opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities of sharing food-history research with a broad public.

The first presentation deftly illustrated the intensely collaborative nature of public history work. Moniz, with historians Helen Veit, assistant professor of history at Michigan State University, and Julia Irwin, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, discussed a multi-faceted media project that drew upon their complementary skills and expertise. With American Food Roots, a digital publication, the three historians produced content for a series of videos on how World War I changed American food and foodways. The videos feature Moniz (a former pastry chef) cooking period recipes while Veit and Irwin explain the larger historical and cultural context of food during the war. Veit showed one of the videos, which featured recipes for peanut butter soup (!) and a nut, cream cheese, and date salad, served with a mayonnaise dip.

Screenshot 2015-03-09 11.00.55Peanut Butter Soup recipe screenshot. http://www.americanfoodroots.com/features/wwi-food-shortages-changed-american-eating-habits/

Moniz, Veit, and Irwin discussed how they used the historian’s tools—and then some—to shape the video series. In addition to their research on the war itself, they scoured archival and library collections to help illustrate and expand the theme. The videos are enhanced significantly by the primary research underlying the production: period cookbooks, government posters and pamphlets, and news photographs allowed the historians to convey visually the urgency and deprivations of the war as well as the spirit of the times. The preparation of period recipes on camera also offers an accessible way for viewers to understand both the sacrifices caused by food shortages and the inventiveness of American cooks.

Rachel Hope Cleves, associate professor of history at the University of Victoria, spoke next about her blog, The Not So Innocents Abroad: Historical Ramblings on Sex, Food, and Other Bodily Pleasures, in Paris, Capri, and Beyond. Cleves noted how the blog permits a more informal voice than her academic writing, yet she grounds it in scholarly research and methods. Blogs, by their nature, are more widely and easily accessible than traditional scholarly monographs, and Cleves reported an unexpected benefit: the opportunity to engage immediately in thoughtful exchanges with people on the other side of the world, people she would not have encountered via academic channels.

Of her many intriguing food-related blog posts (e.g., “Elizabeth David & Coming Home,” and “Love’s Oven is Warm: Baking with Emily Dickinson”), Cleves spoke in depth about “Benjamin Franklin’s Apple Pudding” . While trying to follow Franklin’s instructions, she discovered they lacked adequate detail about quantities and ingredients. Perhaps eighteenth-century cooks familiar with the dish didn’t need such guidance, but a twenty-first century cook had questions—lots of them—and, like inquiries that drive academic research, Cleves’ questions underlie the structure and tone of the post. Finding the instruction to boil the apple-filled pastry for three hours difficult to reconcile, Cleves boiled it as directed and served the resulting putty-colored blob to guests. They, like readers of the blog, surely learned something new about the culinary milieu of Benjamin Franklin.

I wrapped up the session with a presentation about my work in food history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. As project director and co-curator of the exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000, I addressed some of the curatorial decisions the team made in shaping an exhibition that presents the myriad—and often contradictory—forces behind some of the big changes in how food is produced, distributed, prepared, and consumed in American since World War II. The exhibition relies on objects, documents, and case studies to present the complexity of food and change, from Julia Child’s home kitchen to early microwave ovens and the rise of convenience foods; from artifacts of the counterculture to a menu board from an early drive thru restaurant. I also discussed the role of evaluation in public history work, reporting that survey responses to the FOOD exhibition are helping the team shape a robust schedule of public programming to enhance and expand the themes of the exhibition.

Julia Child's Kitchen new installation
The home kitchen of American cookbook author, teacher, and television chef Julia Child is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Our panel attracted a roomful of people who participated in a lively conversation about the expanding opportunities for engaging diverse publics in food-history discourse. While the panel touched on various media for bringing food history to the public, we agreed there are many other avenues to explore. We also agreed on our responsibility to continue bringing academic rigor, primary source material, creative thinking, and a passion for people, food, and history to every endeavor.

 

Victorian Recipes and Public History: My Visit to the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

By: Michelle DiMeo

As an active academic scholar who recently started working for a cultural institution, I’ve become increasingly interested in how the sources I use for professional historical research can be recast for a wider public audience. Recipe books tend to be an easy genre for public history and outreach: off hand, I can think of more public books than scholarly books about historical recipes. That said, not all of these are done well, and I particularly appreciate public histories that include thoughtful reflection on the original historical context, and those which can integrate museum and library collections to provide a more complete look at how the texts were actually used.

An event I recently attended at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion – a 17-room Victorian mansion in Philadelphia –  offered a creative, interactive way for guests to learn about historical recipes. Upstairs Downstairs Celebration was the opening event for the Mansion’s new interpretive tour focusing on the challenges and enjoyments of Victorian women across all socio-economic levels. Recipes were not the focus of the event, but were instead integrated into a much larger program. Guests entered the Mansion and were taken into an elaborate dining room, where we were invited to choose a pin featuring a Victorian woman’s portrait. Everyone from suffragists to recipe book writers, and from prostitutes to medical doctors, were represented. (As a medical humanist, it seemed appropriate that I chose Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to receive an MD, though I did seriously consider Philadelphian Eliza Leslie, who wrote nine cookbooks between 1827 and 1857!) Connected to the dining room was the well-preserved nineteenth-century kitchen, where the imposing black iron stove and over-sized kitchen utensils caught my eye before spotting the free champagne and Victorian finger-foods on the table. Guests wandered between the kitchen and dining room, exploring historical artifacts and textual reproductions that served as good conversation-starters.

Victorian Stove, Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion
Victorian Stove – Image courtesy of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

Becky Diamond, author of Mrs. Goodfellow: The Story of America’s First Cooking School, was available to answer questions and share interesting facts about the objects the guests viewed. In the kitchen, we could smell the rosewater and fresh nutmeg that Diamond used in the jumbles she baked, which we would later be given as a parting gift (along with her modernized version of the Victorian recipe, adapted from Mrs. Goodfellow’s original). Diamond has recently begun experimenting with the recipes she studies, and she was able to explain the changes in oven temperature, egg size, and available resources today versus the late-nineteenth century. The dining room also contained engaging reproductions of Victorian household guidance books. Who can resist smiling at Mrs. Henderson’s suggestions for a 7-course breakfast party (which, she argued,  were “very fashionable, being less expensive than dinners, and just as satisfactory to guests”) or Mrs. Beeton’s  suggested Bill of Fare for a picnic of 40 people? Of course, reading prescriptive texts in isolation does not give us a completely accurate account of what many Victorian women were actually doing or how they were adapting the guidelines. As such, I appreciated seeing that the Executive Director of the Mansion, Diane Richardson, provided some critical commentary and supplementary images, including an 1881 invitation to a lunch party that Philadelphia socialite Minnie Campbell Wilson (neé Harris) saved in her scrapbook, and a photo of a smaller dinner picnic that was held in the woods of New Jersey in 1888.

Victorian Picnic
Dinner Picnic in New Jersey woods, 1888.  The Library Company of Philadelphia

As I began this post by saying, the event was not explicitly about recipes, and I think this is what I liked most about it. Guests were lured in by a range of other activities broadly related to the history of Victorian women, including the opportunity to do a self-guided tour of the Mansion. We then gathered in the parlor to hear Cordelia Frances Biddle offer an overview of the social and political challenges faced by nineteenth-century American women and to watch actress Megan Edelman read Susan B. Anthony’s Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States (which Anthony read on July 4, 1876 on the front steps of Independence Hall , Philadelphia). This kick-off event, and the guided tours that will continue on the first Friday evening of every month, will primarily appeal to those with an interest in women’s history and the history of Philadelphia, but it would also interest history-lovers more broadly.

Victorian lunch party invitation
Lunch party invitation, 1881. The Library Company of Philadelphia.

Most people will not attend the Upstairs Downstairs tour to learn specifically about American culinary history, but they will walk away knowing a bit more about it. For me, this was a good example of how a niche sub-field I study as an academic can be intelligently worked into a broader public history event – one providing enough information to encourage critical reflection and engagement with material culture, but not too much information to alienate or overwhelm the non-specialist.

Thank you to Diane Richardson, Becky Diamond and Nicole Joniec for sharing their research materials with me and answering my questions.