From the MHL: “Seeing With a Better Eye”

By , March 16, 2015

The MHL was kind enough to extend an invitation to guest-post regarding my usage of the MHL in the preparation of The Second Book. In this post, then, I will try to describe The Second Book as best I can, so as to frame the significance of the MHL’s holdings and resources for my work, as well as to describe specifically how I use the MHL in my daily research. Okay, sometimes the research is more like “weekly” or even “biweekly” than daily. . .

The Second Book has a working title of “Truth, Objectivity, and Sight: An Intellectual History of the X-Ray in the U.S. 1896-1945.” Here is a short description taken from the prospectus:

Although historians of science and medicine have not ignored the X-ray, virtually no scholar has utilized an approach drawn from the history of ideas to account for the stunning impact of the X-ray across a huge number of domains, including but not limited to medical, scientific, legal, religious, domestic, and labor paradigms in fin-de-siècle American culture. Focusing in particular on the rise of two intellectual frameworks in late 19th c. America — somaticism (or the birth of the anatomoclinical method) and what Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have termed ‘mechanical objectivity’ — the monograph shows how ideas about the meaning of the X-ray explain its astonishing impact, not simply on medicine and science, but on American society itself.

The book is currently under consideration by a university press, and the writing is just about at the halfway point (for a variety of reasons I believe and hope that the second half will come quicker and easier than the first). So, how does the MHL figure in my research for the book?

As I have remarked on several occasions, the MHL is nothing short of an embarrassment of riches for a 19th c. Americanist drawing primarily on the history of ideas. My chief interests in the movement of ideas about health, disease, and illness across social networks and the ways in which those ideas shape practice and action in mid-to-late 19th-early 20th c. U.S. coheres perfectly with a major strength of the MHL collections: 19th and early 20th c. holdings on medical journals and treatises. For example, in tracing the ways in which the emphasis on clinical sight (the “gaze,” if you like Foucault) converged with the rising emphasis on pathological anatomy, an obvious primary source is James Jackson Jr.’s memoirs of his education in Paris in the early 1830s. (For extensive scholarly discussion of this source and its significance, see John Harley Warner’s seminal book). In chapter 1 of the manuscript, I focus primarily on the stethoscope because, while the primary sense most associate with the stethoscope is that of hearing, hearing was merely a means to an end. As Jacalyn Duffin points out, Laennec himself wanted the stethoscope to help him look inside his patients, to “see with a better eye.” And the contexts in which scientific and medical practitioners desired and used the stethoscope support this notion. Following a close reading of Warner’s book, I wanted to examine Jackson’s memoirs to assess specifically the extent to which he links the importance of seeing pathological lesions (and clinically correlating with living patients) to the use of the stethoscope.

The MHL makes this analysis incredibly efficient. I began by simply running a Google search for “James Jackson physician memoirs.” The MHL has a new and improved Full Text Search in beta, but I would be lying if I said that I did not primarily rely on Google’s indexing power. I have been working in the MHL for at least 4-5 years, and my established workflow tends to begin with Google; it is difficult to break research habits, especially where, over time, I have begun to understand what phrases and combinations are likely to return results that feature sources from within the MHL or the larger Internet Archive.

The aforementioned Google search brings me to the MHL in hits number 4 and 5 in the search position:


Now, because I am intentionally looking for the source within the MHL, I am admittedly in a different position from many other Internet searchers; I am essentially using Google for the intended purpose of locating sources within the MHL. Once I am within the MHL, the “fun” really begins. First, I absolutely love the MHL interface itself. It is so easy to manipulate the size of the text, I find myself reading sources online with greater frequency, even though I am one who often prefers the physical text itself. Second, and related, I used to download PDFs from MHL, use optical character recognition technology to make the source full-text searchable, and find that for which I was looking. But the interface is so clean and easy to use, I simply use the full-text search online within the source itself. Searching for “stethoscop*” pulls up the following, with a pin marking the point in the text that is likely to be of interest (Note that using the asterisk matters, as the search engine will look for any potential word that begins with “stethoscope,” therein finding variations such as “stethoscopic” or “stethoscopes,” etc.):


By hovering the cursor over the pin, a lovely preview of the text pops up, enabling me to scan the hit quickly to discern whether it merits full read of the page. As is clear from the text itself, Jackson’s words reveal a fascinating convergence between the senses of hearing and sight in context of the stethoscope, both as to the patients he wishes to “see” and the use of stethoscopic sounds to map the interior of the chest cavity, in particular:


Although the subject of the book is the X-ray, I argue in it that we cannot really understand the ideas that help animate the social and cultural significance of the X-ray without apprehending ideas about truth, authenticity, and the construction of scientific knowledge that relate to 19th c. imaging techniques in general. Explaining how and why the stethoscope is really a kind of imaging device, and documenting this via the primary sources, is an important take for the beginning of the book, and the MHL is incredibly helpful in this regard.

Of course, this is just one example! I have used an analogous process hundreds of times in the course of my research, especially in some of the later chapters on which I have been working, which make extensive use of some of the amazing medico-legal sources held within the MHL collections. Because the middle chapters of the book document the movement of important ideas between expert and lay cultures, using the MHL as a pole from which to search for and calibrate useful sources drawn from lay and public cultures has also proven exceedingly helpful. But I will reserve discussion of this latter point for possible future posts!

Thoughts, comments, questions?

Contributed by Daniel Goldberg, an attorney, an intellectual historian of medicine, and a public health ethicist.  His history work focuses on the mid-to-late 19th early 20th c. U.S., with a focus on the history of pain and on the history of medical imaging.  He is working on a monograph about the first fifty years of X-ray usage in the U.S

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