Post-Thesis Thinking

Blog post

I reread my thesis today. It’s always a scary practice, reading your own writing after you’ve let it sit for awhile. But I came away pleased overall, and the time I’ve spend out of the academic world has made it a lot easier to reflect on some of the real-world implications of my research.

I think the most important takeaway from it for any normal, non-historian reader is the idea that our ideas of what is healthy (and by extension what isn’t) are concepts that are constantly changing. It’s not based on some absolute truth, determined by the medical powers-that-be that understand, through the power of science, how the human body really works and interacts with its environment. Doctors are humans too, and they are exposed to the same articles you read at midnight on Facebook about how drinking unfiltered springwater is actually good for you or how only drinking cranberry juice for a week will cleanse your system. Outside of popular health fads, they are also exposed to very real and very persuasive economic incentives for maintaining certain ideas about what human health means in their professional lives (ever seen Dallas Buyers Club?). Doctors–and other scientists, religious leaders, and authority figures–are all human and subject to the same biases that lead us all astray and color our perceptions in unique and impossibly complex ways.

I think there’s this idea that the experts in any given field have determined some sort of abstract truth, often understood as universal laws that exist independently of human existence and merely await our discovery of them. The fundamental flaw in this way of thinking is that it fails to account for the very human aspect of human-held truths. Our doctors, our scientists, our teachers, our neighbors, our families, and we ourselves are all contributors to the social milieu from which our beliefs about the world are drawn. Our ideas of what is true and what isn’t are culturally, economically, and socially contingent, and it is every individual’s personal responsibility to realize our role in creating that truth. It is only when we have realized how our humanity factors into the way that we understand ourselves and our world that we are truly empowered to create it.

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 Question Brainstorm

Blog post, Thesis Research

There are a few different directions I could go with my thesis at this point, and I think one of the best ways for me to work through them is to write them down and read them later. Here’s to hoping one of these sounds doable when I reread this in a couple of weeks.

I’m studying with some great professors here at OU, but most of them focus on the history of science, not medicine (and the two are very different fields — believe me). I was a little upset by this at first, but I think that ultimately I can use this as an advantage in writing this thesis and in my overall intellectual development as an historian.

I revisited some of the primary sources I’d been looking at, and this time I noticed how, especially as we reach the late 19th century, the arguments presented for why the waters healed were largely formulated with an appeal to science. Numbers — in the form of data like charts, percentages, and statistics of other kinds — began to appear, and the experts behind their development were emphasized (professors at universities in St. Louis, physicians who trained at prominent medical schools). Did the inclusion of more scientific arguments for the efficacy of the waters reflect a growing trust in medical science? If so, what engendered this trust? What role did scientific medicine play in the choices vernacular audiences made in regards to their health decisions, and was this in a state of accelerated change at the end of the 19th century?

I can also see some major boundary-work going on in my primary source base. It seems that what was considered “medicine” and what wasn’t was in a state of heightened ambivalence at the end of the 19th century and on into the 20th. The backlash initiated by the realization that age-old “heroic” therapeutics — based largely around violent purgatives and emetics — were not effective rendered medical authority questionable. Could the rise of hydrotherapy be indicative of the uncertainty that surrounded the therapeutics of the era? Is it evidence that…? Is it also a reaction against the lack of agency patients were beginning to see in the more cold, clinical doctor-patient relationship that was characteristic of the “new” medicine, based as it was on the numerical analysis of disease and cure?

I keep coming back to the role that statistics and numbers seem to have played in the changing location of trust in medicine. Without statistical evidence to the contrary, patients placed their full trust in their doctor and the immediate effects of his treatment. As statistical methods made their way into medicine, however, patients had to decide where to place their faith — with the family doctor, who often gave them more agency in their own medical decisions, or with a new and increasingly numerous class of physicians that, backed by the authority of science, advocated new methods, new characterizations of disease, and espoused new therapeutical strategies. Personal experience and agency vs. scientific expertise and delegation of medical responsibility.

I’m considering dropping the micro-historical approach and instead focusing on a few different spa towns. Is that a stupid idea for something as short as a masters thesis? Hm.

I tried to come up with a witty, history-sounding title for this post and failed, which is further evidence that I’m far, far too broad in my research interests here. Sigh. 

Science, Medicine & Women in Middlemarch

Blog post, Summaries & Reviews

I started out the summer ambitiously, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Perceiving a declining ability to read fiction, I decided I needed to relearn how to not immediately try and find the thesis in any piece of writing I laid eyes on. What better tome to begin with than one I’d heard whispers around the department as being full of science and gender themes?!

I was in for a treat, but one for which I’d have to work pretty hard. George Eliot is no Jane Austen, and Middlemarch is no light read. In addition to science and gender, Eliot touches on provincial life, religion, ethics/morality, politics (and this one was probably the most prevalent), some technology, love and relationships, change, and so, so much more. While most of the notes I took and things I thought about orbited around a scientific and gendered perspective, I got a lot more from the book than that. And I’ll probably get something entirely different when I inevitably give it another read in a few years.

The book is a study of country life in England, and it is staged in a provincial town. It follows the lives of quite a few of the town’s residents, which is part of the reason the book is so damn long (my copy was 613 pages). I quickly located my favorite character in Tertius Lydgate, a physician from out of town with family in high places and some new, radical ideas about how to treat illness. He trained in Paris, which I found very interesting — at the time (1820s and 30s), the Parisian medical school and attached hospital were training physicians in the anatomo-pathological methodology. Inspired by rational, mathematical methods, these men (one of which is mentioned often in the book, Pierre C.A. Louis) found that patients treated with medicines of the time did not fare any better than those left more or less alone. As a result, these physicians and the students they taught thought it’d be more useful to let diseases take their course. Some of the sick died, after which time the medical men would dissect them and attempt to correlate their diseases/symptoms with internal “lesions,” or abnormalities. In this way, they hoped to discover the true causes of illness and propose new, more effective therapeutic options.

Thesis Shower Thoughts

Blog post

I’m starting to realize that, while I still have a good chunk of time in which to pick an advisor and a “tentative thesis title,” all of that is not just going to magically fall into my lap between now and the deadline. Though I feel I’m drowning in books, I’ve got to start making time to think about things that aren’t due tomorrow. Even if that time is in the shower.

So, I was reminiscing about undergrad — mostly about the copious amounts of free time I had — when I started to think about the office meeting with Dr. Starks, my then-advisor, in which I found out about the foundation of Eureka Springs. My first, most pressing question was, why on earth did these people believe drinking this “magical” water would cure them? I’d taken enough history classes to know that individuals in the past weren’t less intelligent or more easily fooled — there had to be some other reason, perhaps cultural, social, economic, etc. I was sure that if I answered that initial question, it would tell me a lot about medical knowledge and beliefs in late nineteenth century America, and when that knowledge made claims like the ones Eureka’s promoters were making sound a little too good to be true.

But where do you look for the answer to a question like that? I visited the historical museum and library in Eureka Springs hunting for sources — anything to look at from the nineteenth century at that point — and I found something. Above what doubled as the librarian’s desk and the checkout counter, there was this huge, beat up box crammed with promotional pamphlets the town had sent out to attract a customer base. The dates ranged from the late 1870s to modern-day. I was so excited! What better way to understand why people came than to look at what the entrepreneurs of the town thought would attract their clientele?

In the process of reading through the ads, I began to feel uneasy. This was good material, but it wasn’t answering my question satisfactorily. I was struggling to construct a medical understanding that would have been receptive to  what I was seeing in the ads. The thesis turned out okay — I was able to make some connections with contemporary medical trends, and the argument ran smoothly and was well supported. But I knew that I hadn’t really answered my original question.

I’ve taken some classes since beginning graduate school that have introduced me to the idea of popular science. It’s (in my very limited understanding) an approach that looks at how members of vernacular or unprofessional groups — everyday people — understand, have an impact on and are impacted by science. It is more inclusive in its idea of “science,” a necessary corollary when the object of study resides outside the professional realm. The sourcebase for the research is quite different from that of ordinary history of science; instead of intellectual manifestos, the approach encourages analyses that include literature, advertisements, workaday newspaper ads, images, and other popular publications.

I think that bringing this approach into my study would help me answer my initial and most important question, and I think the research could produce some interesting, and perhaps unexpected, outcomes. Hopefully more thought on the subject will further hone my questions, but I’m very glad (not to mention relieved) that I’ve had this little epiphany. Thank you, shower.