The Transition

Blog post, Uncategorized

I graduated from a History of Science program in May of 2018 and have been serving as an intern in the human resources department of a relatively large and well-known industrial construction company.

Talk about contrast.

I have been forced through exposure and an increasingly intense desire to get out of my parents’ house to evaluate the skills I have accumulated during my tenure as an academic hopeful against the needs of the real world. I have been confronted with and made humble by the realities of corporate America. In knowing so very much about the importance of context and deep, contemplative thought, I have come to realize that I know very little about the importance of directed, practical thinking. About the importance of real-world skills and the amazing power of their impact on today.

I have found the pragmatist in myself, something that always felt like a hinderance in academia. I tried to throw it off, to disown it, in my first semesters of graduate study, expressing dissatisfaction in group discussions centered around historians who used the first and last chapters of their books to tie their work into current issues and thus politicize (read: sully) their work by exposing its current applications. History should be produced for history’s sake, I thought in an unreflective reaction to deep-seated concerns about what in the hell the study of history could do for the world.

My time out of academia has brought on the realization–already partially developed–that it isn’t quite where I belong. It could be my background or my natural inclinations, but I have an awareness of immediacy and practicality about me that makes the idealism of the university setting seem a bit naive. I understand its importance and have all the respect in the world for those who choose to remain there, but it’s not home for me.

The skills I developed under its wing and the weaknesses I exhibited when measured by its standards, however, are telling.

  • I am an excellent writer that thoroughly enjoys the process of taking an incomprehensible amount of data or an unwieldy process/idea and reformulating it in a way that means something to a predetermined audience.
  • I know how to structure evidence in order to formulate a convincing argument. (Yes, law has crossed my mind. No, it’s not for me.)
  • I understand the importance of context. I know it is vital to consider audience, the source of information, and perceived or actual motives when building or evaluating a narrative. I know that narratives are constructed things, and I understand that they can be manipulated… and I also know how important it is at times to be in control of the way that an event, person, process, place, etc., is understood.
  • I understand–having tried to widen the perspectives of people indoctrinated with this mentality as well as working within it–the importance of numerical data (the “business case” in HR terminology) in building arguments.
  • I couldn’t ever get on board with the egos academia requires. Even if you know your argument has holes, you have to work your way around them. Diminish them. Not show weakness. I’m more collaborative than that, more interested in the overall outcome than playing up my own attributes in an attempt to validate my position. This may be considered a weakness in other circles as well, but that’s me. I’m a team player at heart, more interested in overall outcome than my own professional success.
  • I am and will continue to be a lifelong learner. I will always seek out and consider the opinions of those around me. I value feedback–positive and negative–and will integrate it into my decided courses of action.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that I have a skillset and mentality that will render me successful in positions that value initiative, curiosity, and coachability. I am passionate and love to learn, and I credit my time in academia as a major contributor to my desire to continue fostering those traits. I don’t know that a masters degree in history is the way everyone develops these characteristics, but it certainly worked for me and I am grateful for what I learned and not the least bit upset that my original plan–to become a part of the university system–didn’t end up becoming my calling.

 

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.