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  • Popular Medicine in America 1800-1900
  • Wendy Kline

Popular Medicine in America, 1800–1900–1900/

Popular Medicine in America, 1800–1900 is a database produced by Adam Matthew, a SAGE company that has published primary sources from archives around the world. The database contains over five thousand documents from the medical collection at the Library Company of Philadelphia, with additional material (primarily posters) from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The sources are fully text searchable and include trade cards, broadsides, printed books and pamphlets, advertisements, and ephemera (such as receipts and invoices). They provide a fascinating insight into a health care market that was largely unregulated and remarkably diverse.

I have used this database in two different courses at Purdue since the University agreed to purchase it in the Fall of 2015, and I will continue to use it in future courses. It provides a great hook to get students actively engaged in (and curious about) the history of medicine. For example, the Scotch Oats Essence Company (located in New York City) claimed that its product, "Dr. Buckland's Scotch Oats Essence," was "nature's nerve and brain food." On the front of their trade card, a healthy young looking woman's visage, donned in a cap, peers out from among a field of oat stalks. On the back, the list of symptoms that the drug "Will Positively CURE" included sleeplessness, paralysis, an opium habit, drunkenness, hysteria, sciatica, and epilepsy. Who would be foolish enough to believe these claims? Among its advocates was feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who had been diagnosed with nervous prostration. Both she and her first husband noted the drug's remarkable calming effects; no doubt this was a result of its narcotic ingredients: alcohol and morphine. Students predictably laugh at these sorts of advertisements, but the laughter then leads to questions. Who was marketing these materials, and who was purchasing them? How did health care consumers inform and educate themselves about the wide array of salacious offers, and how did they choose which ones to believe? What did this popular market mean, more generally, about the nature of understanding about bodies and health in the nineteenth century?

Popular Medicine in America offers multiple, user-friendly options for students and scholars to explore answers to the above questions. Many of these appear, conveniently, under the "explore" tab. Introductory essays by each member of the editorial board (professor Charles Rosenberg, collector William Helfand, and librarian James Green) provide useful background information for those less familiar with nineteenth century medical history. A chronology page allows [End Page 432] the user to search for terms (e.g., "cholera") to see major events associated with the term, or simply learn about important events in any of eight different health categories (orthodox medicine, homeopathy, phrenology, hydrotherapy, etc.) Thematic areas such as "women's health" and "medical devices" are linked to relevant primary sources in the collection. A glossary contains keywords and phrases associated with the documents. Finally, a link to "popular searches" enables those in need of more guidance to click on one of dozens of keywords or choose one of over 135 medical conditions (everything from bunions to scurvy).

For my classes, I had students explore the "popular searches" link and select one term that piqued their curiosity (using either the medical conditions" or "keywords" search). I asked them to study the documents associated with their search, and then choose five that they believed could be used to explain the history and significance of the term. "Imagine that you have entered a competition to produce a museum display on your topic that will feature these five items," I explained. "Yourjob is to convince the head of the museum that your five images—and your topic more generally—is worthy of display. What makes your topic significant, and what can the five chosen images tell the viewing public about its history? Remember that it's a competition, so it's your job to package this proposal effectively, with a solid introduction, an explanation of each document, and how it pertains to your topic." The resulting papers were fascinating...


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pp. 432-434
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