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How to take patients’ histories: Doing medical history from below in practice

How to take patients’ histories: Doing medical history from below in practice

Workshop organized by Hieke Huistra (Utrecht University), Noortje Jacobs (Erasmus MC, Rotterdam) and Martijn van der Meer (Erasmus MC, Rotterdam)

Almost forty years ago, Roy Porter published his seminal article ‘The Patient’s View: Doing Medical History from Below’. Historians routinely ignored the roles, perspectives, and experiences of sufferers, Porter argued, even though sufferers were the source and origin of any history of healing, and shaped medical encounters and health experiences just as much as healers did. Hence, Porter formulated his ambitious research agenda to shift focus to “the history of the sick,” which he considered central to all medical history and the backbone of social history as well.

In the past decades, historians have taken up the gauntlet. However, as scholars working on patients’ histories will know, doing “medical history from below” can be challenging. First of all, Porter’s research agenda consists of systematic steps that are so all-encompassing—from collecting “the terra firma of the material conditions of communities in times past” to the “basic mappings of experience, belief systems, images and symbols [of classes and communities]”—that executing his vision seems insurmountable, certainly in an age of academia in which research is project-based and limited in resources. Secondly and more practically, the sources left to trace sufferers’ roles, experiences, and perspectives are often scant, difficult to interpret, and fraud with challenges in terms of how representative they are for more general conclusions about sufferers in history.

In this workshop, we want to explore these two challenges with scholars working on patients’ histories. We want to discuss what these historians do in practice: which sources might yield new and important insights, which methodologies help to retrieve and interpret them, what sort of meaningful historical perspectives these sources and methods can—and can’t!—bring, and how we may generalize individual patients’ experiences into broader historical patterns. We want to think practically and hands-on: we invite scholars working on such histories to share their experiences, struggles, and tips and we will read and think along with each other’s work-in-progress. We particularly welcome papers that explore specific sources that help with doing (medical) history from below, such as, but not limited to, ego documents, court proceedings, patient files, health manuals, advertisements, newspapers, and popular magazines, but also medical journals and other professional publications that offer their own—indirect—insights into patients’ histories.

Practical Information

The workshop will take place on 28 and 29 September in Utrecht. We plan to organize an informal opening dinner on Wednesday evening 27 September; the sessions will be scheduled on Thursday 28 and Friday 29.

If you are interested in participating please send an abstract (300-500 words) and a short bio (2-5 lines) to Hieke Huistra (h.m.huistra@uu.nl) before or at April 14th, 2023. We aim to get back to you with a decision at the end of April.

We have some funding available for supporting travel costs. If the travel costs from a barrier for you to participate in the workshop, please contact us to discuss the options.