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.