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  • The Medical Trade Catalogue in Britain, 1870–1914 by Claire L. Jones
  • Mike French (bio)
The Medical Trade Catalogue in Britain, 1870–1914. By Claire L. Jones. London: Pickering & Catto, 2013. Pp. xii+ 264. $99.

In a thoughtful and imaginative study, Claire L. Jones explores multiple dimensions of the business catalogs produced by suppliers of tools, equipment, and a miscellany of other technologies to the medical profession. There was apparently a proliferation in the number of these publications and in their reprinting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their content became more detailed with the inclusion of higher-quality images, and the material was circulated widely within Britain and overseas. By drawing on evidence from around 400 such catalogs, generated by 101 different companies, she deftly places these marketing devices in multiple contexts and literatures.

The material is ordered thematically, with a progression from the design and production of catalogs to evaluations of how they were distributed and read. The appendix provides a summary of almost fifty pages of the full database of catalogs. The resulting account offers insights relevant to historians of business, sales and marketing, technology, and the evolution of the medical profession. It is clearly presented and argued, demonstrating awareness of key ideas, methodologies, and debates across many of these sub-disciplines and specialties. At times features of particular contemporary relevance are noted, such as the role of markets within health care and concepts of professionalism.

The catalogs are described thoroughly with an emphasis on their co-creation through varying forms of interaction between doctors as customers and instrument makers and others as suppliers. In part a simple sales listing, the inclusion of images, text, and recommendations allows Jones to argue that the catalogs embodied the status, scientific and practical orientations, and, in many cases, commercialism of health professionals. The clustering of suppliers close to major hospitals, especially centers [End Page 988] of teaching, fostered such connections. The exchanges contributed to innovations in product design and to the popularity of particular types of equipment. The style and format of the catalogs imitated medical reference books, which Jones suggests was a device to enhance their appeal to status-conscious practitioners. Their content disseminated medical technologies and, to a degree, guidance on their use. Indeed Jones emphasizes that a very wide range of products was available at any one time and that particular types of equipment had long life spans. On this basis she suggests that new eras in medicine, such as the “aseptic revolution” and the use of X-rays, emerged gradually within a body of practices that altered only slowly. The argument is advanced with care, though the reliance on advertising makes it difficult to evaluate sales or uses of different technologies.

In part Jones presents the catalogs as elements of scientific and professional rhetorics attached to medicine. Their content and language were designed to appeal to the aspirations and cultures of the expanding medical profession. A neat discussion contrasts the functional style of pharmaceutical catalogs that were close to simple price lists with the more detailed and visually rich documents developed by makers of tools and more complex equipment. This attention to the sales function is buttressed by an insightful account of the roles of commercial travelers in disseminating sales literature through a variety of channels. Jones questions the emphasis that Roy Church and E. M. Tansey placed on Burroughs, Wellcome as a key innovator in marketing from the late 1870s. She argues that many smaller companies adopted similar practices that have been overlooked because Silas Burroughs overstated his own influence. The study adds a valuable angle to the business history and marketing literatures in this respect.

The sections on the responses of readers are intriguing, though more speculative than the rest of the analysis. Jones places these particular texts in the context of literatures on books and reading, but at times lacks sufficient depth of material to be able to demonstrate that users were interested in anything more than product details and prices. For historians of technology, the study offers insights into a specialist trade and its evolution, in a flexible way through small enterprises, alongside that of the medical profession...


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pp. 988-989
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