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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75.4 (2001) 782-783

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NetNotes: Medical History on the Internet

Medium Meets Message

Russell C. Maulitz

In the sonnet, Shakespeare knew it: one's mode of expressing sentiment or belief becomes intertwined with its content. 1 Hardly new news. But only recently did I come to recognize how life in cyberspace has an impact on our modes of historical expression.

How does the Internet impinge on our discourse? Perhaps it is gratuitous or superficial to point out, as I already have in a predecessor to this column, how electronic mail has altered not just the pace but the very content and the sense of possibility inherent in friction-free communication. 2 But allow me to stretch the meaning of "Internet" to include all the other electronic media that are transforming our teaching and our habits of conveying our thoughts to colleagues. If I may, then, I recently discovered, through two sets of experiences, how, in presenting ideas about historical process, medium meets message.

On the first of two closely spaced occasions, I was among a group of distinguished historians empaneled to discuss a broad swath of historical topics in front of one of the country's largest and most august medical specialty societies. When my turn came, I did not think I had done a particularly stellar job, as I showed the most recent electronic version of some ancient lantern slides. But in speaking from PowerPoint slides, I found that I had created a form of discourse that revolved around "bullet points." Such telegraphic bits and pieces are among the rare beasts that can truly proof me against my usual logorrhea.

At the end of the day, the society members in attendance were asked, in a manner typical of these dos, to provide an evaluation of the speakers. [End Page 782] To my great surprise I was rated rather highly. Other speakers, luminaries who I thought had performed magnificently with profound, nuanced lectures--image-free lectures--fared less well. Now, this audience included distinguished scholars, Oslerians, medical statesmen; so what was going on? I did not know.

Then, a couple of months later, I gave a similar set of lectures to an international seminar-based conference in Europe. Bring out the old bullet points. Punch home those points--some of which were based on new and, I thought, rather intriguing and subtle research in the history of pathology. But for my auditors, there was a problem: there were those blasted bullet points. And many (how many is too many?) pictures. Afterward, a conferencier sidled up and told me she had enjoyed my material--but next time would I, she asked, consider giving an original preparation instead of a refurbished undergraduate lecture? You could have tipped me over with a feather.

We are destined, I fear, to move further and further into an age of "round tripping" between what we write to perform in front of people, what we do on computers, and what we do on the Internet. In the process, cultural norms of communicating historical ideas are likely to shift in unpredictably interesting ways. 3 In the two incidents just described, there was a certain amount of, shall we say, tribalism at play. But all those tribal boundaries, between the "bullet pointers," the pictorialists, and the stentorians, suddenly seem terribly--or wonderfully--elastic. 4 Ready for negotiation. Medium meets message. Go read Shakespeare's "Lust" sonnet: you will see what I mean. This "medium meets message" business is, I suppose, nothing so very new.


Russell C. Maulitz is Chief of the Division of Medical Informatics at MCP Hahnemann University and holds professorships at MCP Hahnemann University and Drexel University in Philadelphia. His address is: 2967 West School House Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19144 (


1. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 129.

2. Russell Maulitz, "Ping Me," Bull. Hist. Med., 2000, 74 : 583-86.

3. On "round tripping," see the interview with Tim Bray, a progenitor of the eXtended Markup Language (XML), at (David Weinberger, "It's...


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