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Shadows in the Valley

A Cultural History of Illness, Death, and Loss in New England, 1840-1916

Alan Swedlund

Publication Year: 2010

How does the experience of sickness, death, and loss change over time? We know that the incidence and virulence of particular diseases have varied from one period to another, as has their medical treatment. But what was it like for the individuals who suffered and died from those illnesses, for the health practitioners and institutions that attended to them, and for the families who buried and mourned them? In Shadows in the Valley, Alan Swedlund addresses these questions by closely examining the history of mortality in several small communities in western Massachusetts from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century—from just before the acceptance of the germ theory of disease through the early days of public health reform in the United States. This was a time when most Americans lived in rural areas or small towns rather than large cities. It was also a time when a wide range of healing practices was available to the American public, and when the modern form of Western medicine was striving for dominance and authority. As Swedlund shows, this juncture of competing practices and ideologies provides a rich opportunity for exploring the rise of modern medicine and its impact on the everyday lives of ordinary Americans. To indicate how individuals in different stages of their lives were exposed to varying assaults on their health, the book is structured in a way that superimposes what the author calls “life-course time” onto chronological time. Thus the early chapters look at issues of infancy and childhood in the 1840s and 1850s and the last chapters at the problems of old age after 1900. The reader becomes familiar with specific individuals and families as they cope with the recurrent loss of children, struggle to understand the causes of new contagions, and seek to find meaning in untimely death. By using a broad time frame and a narrow geographical lens, Swedlund is able to engage with both the particularities and generalities of evolving medical knowledge and changing practice, and to highlight the differences in personal as well as collective responses to illness and loss.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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p. vii-vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

This book became a gleam in my eye, plus several pages of notes, during the spring of 1996, while working on a study of infant mortality in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. In 1995–96 I was fortunate to receive a Weatherhead Resident Scholarship to the School for American (now Advanced) Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This beautiful and inspiring place, and the bright col-...

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pp. 1-8

This book is about the circumstances that occur when illness leads to death, and death to loss and mourning. Anthropologists sometimes remark that birth and death are the only true universals for humankind. But though death is universal, the way it is experienced is not. This book also is about death in a specific place and time: Massachusetts from the mid-nineteenth to the early ...

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Chapter 1: Histories of Illness and Death

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pp. 9-22

In the early spring of 1842 a country doctor sits at his writing desk. As he writes, he ponders a recent epidemic of dysentery in his town, unaware that another is soon to follow. The doctor’s name is Stephen West Williams, and he lives in the small agricultural town of Deerfield, County of Franklin, Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A third-generation medical man, he began ...

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Chapter 2: Life and Death in Massachusetts, Deerfield, and the Connecticut River Valley, 1620–1840

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pp. 23-45

When Timothy Dwight traveled throughout New England in 1796–97, soon after assuming the presidency of Yale University, he saw a landscape dotted with small farming communities and mill sites that reflected prosperity and abundance. New Englanders had been cultivating the land for about 175 ...

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Chapter 3: Cholera Infantum

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pp. 46-64

Upon returning to Deerfield after delivering his address to the Massachusetts Medical Society in May, Stephen West Williams hoped that the ...

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Chapter 4: The Fevers of Childhood

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pp. 65-83

Among the childhood diseases that tormented families, communities, and public health officials in nineteenth-century New England, the so-called childhood fevers—scarlet fever, measles, and diphtheria—worked by far the ...

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Chapter 5: Dutiful Daughters, Pallid Young Women

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pp. 84-103

“Consumption, that great destroyer of human health and human life, takes the first rank as an agent of death; and as such, we deem it proper to analyze more particularly the circumstances under which it operates. Any facts regarding a disease that destroys one-seventh to one-fourth of all that die, cannot ...

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Chapter 6: Reproductive Women, Productive Men

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pp. 104-124

A simple entry by the Reverend Edgar Buckingham, a Deerfield Congregational minister, in the First Church’s book of baptisms, marriages, and funerals for 1870 reads: “April 19, Mary E. wife of John H. Stebbins. Age, 34, ...

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Chapter 7: Surviving the Odds: The “Privilege” of Old Age

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pp. 125-146

At the close of the nineteenth century, Dr. Samuel Abbott, secretary to the Massachusetts State Board of Health, took a keen interest in the long series of vital statistics available to him through the Registry of Vital Records and Statistics. In a report published in 1897, he noted that whereas in 1855...

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Chapter 8: Managing Disease in the Long Nineteenth Century: Numeracy and Nosology, Nature and Nurture, 1840–1916

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pp. 147-166

On the strength of a compendium of data remarkable for its time, the Report of the Sanitary Commission, Lemuel Shattuck and the commission concluded in 1850 that “causes exist in Massachusetts, as in England, to produce premature and preventable deaths, and hence unnecessary and preventable...

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Chapter 9: Bodies of Evidence: Death, Loss, and the Search for Meaning

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pp. 167-190

On a beautiful, sunny Memorial Day shortly before I finished the book, I walked into Deerfield’s Laurel Hill Cemetery to revisit the resting places of Frankie and George Sheldon, Hattie Willard, and the other people I had come to know during my research. I wanted to take a final look at the gravestones and epitaphs of those whose names fill these pages, and I had brought my ...

Appendixes: Data Collection and Evaluation

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pp. 191-200


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pp. 201-236


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pp. 237-246

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760499
E-ISBN-10: 1613760493
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497191
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497196

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 50 illus.
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Diseases -- Social aspects -- New England -- History -- 20th century.
  • Death -- Social aspects -- New England -- History.
  • Mortality -- Social aspects -- New England -- History.
  • Loss (Psychology) -- Social aspects -- New England -- History.
  • Diseases -- Social aspects -- New England -- History -- 19th century.
  • New England -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • New England -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • New England -- Statistics, Medical.
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