Science and the Construction of Health in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, 1879-1906

Blog post, Papers

It is done, and it is online for anyone to read!

The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a crisis in therapeutics as scientific developments overturned the theoretical underpinnings of humoral medicine, leaving room for lively and pluralistic discourses of health and healing. This thesis examines the controversies surrounding therapeutics in late nineteenth-century America through a microhistorical study of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a spa town developed in the late nineteenth century. Physicians, scientists, patients and town boosters all contributed to conversations about the healing properties of the natural springs that dot the landscape around Eureka Springs. Beginning in 1879 with Eureka’s founding, this work covers its establishment as a health resort by means of aggressive investment and advertising and traces the changes in rhetoric and language of the town’s promotional material and other ephemera through the early twentieth century. Its story, one peripheral but concurrent to that of mainstream medicine, makes clear that therapeutics, and by extension health, are constructed concepts, and that they are constantly being created by physicians, scientists, and the everyday person alike.

Writing my thesis was a journey–had some very good, and also some very bad moments–but I am so incredibly proud of the result. If you’d told me I would be citing Foucault in any piece of writing a year ago, I’d have laughed in your face. Thanks in large part to an incredible mentor, however, I ventured into the terrifying world of theory. And I found it to be a pretty powerful tool for framing my research and really digging in and answering some of the questions that have been gnawing at me since I started this project.

My masters defense was a bit bumpier than its undergraduate equivalent, but that’s to be expected. I got some useful advice and a couple new leads if I keep on hacking away at what could totally someday be a tenable dissertation topic… or a popular history book. Or just the subject of more blog posts. It’s all kind of up in the air right now, but I don’t think Eureka Springs will ever be out of my mind. It’s still magical and fascinating to me, which is the feeling I think most historians are chasing. You know you’ve found your topic when it doesn’t get boring, even after four years of digging and fussing over it.

I got asked to change the title of my work. It’s still a sore spot for me, and while I have the utmost respect for all of my committee members, this was one piece of advice (well… it was really a demand) that I couldn’t quite stomach. The finished product is recorded at OU with the title I was required to change it to, but it will always be “Science and the Construction of Health” in my heart. That’s what I will call it here, but you’ll notice a slightly different title in ShareOK.

I will be stringing together some thoughts soon around my work and what the conclusions I came to mean for current beliefs about health, wellness, and water. Turns out my brain isn’t just going to stagnate now that I’ve earned my degree and left university–woo! Stay tuned!

Thesis Revisions: Contextualization in AR History

Notes, Thesis Research

Howard C. Westwood, “The Federals’ Cold Shoulder to Arkansas’ Powell Clayton,” Civil War History 26, no. 3 (1980): 240-255.

Here Westwood tells the story of Reconstruction after Arkansas was reintegrated into the Union and Federal forces were removed. Ku Klux Klan violence was rampant, and the first Republican governor Powell Clayton was forced by a lack of federal aid to resort to the use of a rag-tag, ill-disciplined volunteer militia to protect citizens from their midnight murdering sprees.

Westwood notes that the Klan’s activities were, relative to the other regions of the state, minor in the Northwest region. Martial law was only enacted there in a single county in 1868. (254)

Clayton decided to stay in Arkansas after he served as a general there during the war. Westwood claims that he was not much interested in politics until the era of congressional reconstruction, when he became an active Republican. He “strongly advocated the economic development of the state still so nearly primitive that the war had found it with less than forty miles of railroad.” (242) He seemed rather popular with Dems and Reps alike until the activities of his militiamen engendered distrust and hatred.

American Nervousness, 1903

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

Tom Lutz, American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

This is a strange one, but offers and interesting and valuable perspective on neurasthenia in its heyday primarily through the use of literary sources. Lutz takes what can loosely be described as a microhistorical approach with the goal of showing how a discourse of disease can be used to negotiate cultural change.

It would be incorrect to say that Lutz really “argues” anything in this book; rather, he’s taken a selection of literature and analyzed it in the context of the discourse surrounding neurasthenia. Most of his actors use it to express very different feelings about their cultural hopes and realities.

The Nervous Origins of the American Western

Notes, Thesis Research

Barbara Will, “The Nervous Origins of the American Western,” American Literature 20, no. 2 (1998): 293-316.

Will looks at the role that neurasthenia played in the development of the idea of the American West, specifically in its literary iteration.

Neurasthenia, as defined by George Beard and Silas Mitchell, was a disease brought on (specifically in men) by the strains of capitalism, political freedom, and technological superiority. These are good things. Modern men needed to maintain a balance, though, and engage in the kind of “struggle” that characterized his ancestors’ experiences on occasion — and they should write about it, according to Mitchell (it’s these writings that the author spends a lot of time analyzing in the second half of the article).

The disease needn’t be cured by a rejection of modernity, capitalism, etc., but rather “through a temporary and repeated entry of the urban into the rural, into a space in which the ‘sturdy contest of nature’ could be waged and these ‘stores of capital vitality’ could be replenished through the simulation of the life of ‘country men.'” (300)

Before Freud

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

F. G. Gosling, Before Freud: Neurasthenia and the American Medical Community, 1870-1910 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987).

Gosling provides a history of neurasthenia before Freud entered the scene of American psychology that considers those outside the “elite” group of physicians (Beard, Mitchell, and co.) who developed the concept in the late 19th century. As a mental illness constructed by physicians and their patients, Gosling argues neurasthenia provides an excellent inroad into the “gender and class biases” that the disease served to justify.

Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity

Notes, Summaries & Reviews

Anna Katharina Schaffner, “Exhaustion and the Pathologization of Modernity,” Journal of Medical Humanities 37, no 3 (2016): 327-341.

Argues that “exhaustion,” typically paired with other, varying symptoms, has factored into medical discourse in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, and has functioned as a medicalized critique of technological advancement. Looks at works by George Cheyne, George Beard, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Sigmund Freud, Alain Ehrenberg and Jonathan Crary.

Climate, Medicine, and Peruvian Health Resorts

Notes, Thesis Research

Mark Carey, “Climate, Medicine, and Peruvian Health Resorts,” Science, Technology, and Human Values 39, no. 6 (2014): 795-818.

Carey tells the story of Jauja, a health resort developed in mid-nineteenth century Peru. He argues that, through the veil of medico-scientific (and more specifically, climatological) discourse, physicians and other authority figures advocated for the development of the resort for economic, political, racialized, and local cultural reasons. Carey holds the science and medicine to be almost entirely socially constructed, and as such it serves as a lens through which to view the real motivations and influences that affected the development of the region.
I’m not quite as hard of a social constructionist as Carey, and while I will incorporate culturally-produced climates, I believe the science/medicine to be a little bit more independently operated than his argument would have it.

Arkansas Medical Monthly (1880)

Notes, Primary Sources, Thesis Research

“Eureka Springs.” Arkansas Medical Monthly 1, no. 1 (1880): 1-3.

“Notwithstanding, however, the ludicrous aspect placed upon the reputation of these springs in the eyes of the medical profession, induced by the enthusiastic exageration [sic] of the people, there is evidently something about them worthy of our attention and careful inquiry.” (34)

“We visited the place during the latter part of December last, but owing to the fact that no analysis has as yet been made of the water (or, at least, none has come under our observation), it is impossible to base a scientific opinion upon its proposed therapeutic value.” (34)

Intimate Climates

Notes, Summaries & Reviews, Thesis Research

Vladimir Jankovic, “Intimate Climates: From Skins to Streets, Soirees to Societies,” in Intimate Universality: Local and Global Themes in the History of Weather and Climate eds. James Fleming, Vladimir Jankovic, and Deborah Coen, 1-34 (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications, 2006).

In this chapter, Jankovic is interested in the dichotomy of the indoor/outdoor and in understandings (from literary and medical sources) of weather before the mass quantitative study of it really took off. He is particularly interested in indoor environments, an understudied aspect of weather — “intimate meteorologies.”