HHH spring meeting 2023: Framing statistics?

On Friday March 10, HHH members met in Nijmegen for our meeting “Framing statistics? Medical history meets historical demography”. This meeting was the result of a collaboration between historical demographers from Nijmegen and the HHH board. Its aim was to let medical historians and demographers discover each other’s disciplines and approaches. More than differences between disciplines, the meeting highlighted the ways in which both types of thinking can productively work together, and the ways they are already being combined. Don’t worry if you missed the meeting: in this post, you can find a summary as well as a recording of the keynote lecture by Evelien Walhout, and audios of the four parallel sessions with the speakers’ PowerPoints.

Framing statistics? Medical history meets historical demography

The meeting was kickstarted by Jan Kok (Radboud University), who introduced the Radboud University historical demography group that hosted the meeting. Researchers in this group engage with history in different ways, from studying changes over time in determinants of health, to using history as a natural experiment (for example, to find out what happens to people’s health under conditions such as famine). Among members of this group are Mayra Murkens, who first took the initiative to organise this meeting, Tim Riswick, Angelique Janssens, and Sanne Muurling.

Evelien Walhout, Silent witnesses. On the language of health and disease, power and identity, doctors and patients.

After Jan’s welcome, Evelien Walhout, assistant professor of economic and social history at Leiden University, delivered her keynote lecture. Evelien started the lecture with three pictures of different “silent witnesses” in medical history, three different types of patients: an anatomical wax model of a pregnant woman, nicknamed the “anatomical Venus”, a painting of doctors with a monkey, and a recent textbook illustration of a black woman carrying a foetus. All three images raise questions about the representation of these witnesses, questions which, according to Evelien, historical demographers, as well as medical historians, should pay more attention to. Evelien reviewed some research approaches that try to retrieve hidden aspects of the lives and thoughts of historical actors, such as performing a “verbal autopsy” of the language used to record causes of death, to get a glimpse on how health was viewed and how it changed over time. At the end of the lecture, Evelien suggested oral history as a method that works especially well for “unsilencing” the patient and the doctor, and that can also be combined with historical demography.

Parallel sessions: Healthy migrants?, “Short lives?”: Inequalities in birth and death, Infant mortality, Colonial health in history

The keynote lecture was followed by four parallel sessions in which medical historians and historical demographers presented their research. You can find the names of the researchers and the titles of their talks below, and you can access the audio recordings of the sessions, as well as the speakers’ PowerPoint presentations, by visiting this folder.

Session a. Healthy migrants?
Paul Puschmann (Radboud University), “Healthy Migrants? Three Historical Demographic Studies in a Nutshell”.
Gemma Blok (Open University), “Migration and Health in History”

Session b. “Short lives?”: Inequalities in birth and death
Björn Quanjer (Radboud University), “Short lives? Using height and mortality as health indicators in the past”
Daniel R. Curtis (Erasmus University), “Reflections from the ‘Positively Shocking’ VIDI Project”

Session c. Infant mortality
Mayra Murkens (Radboud University), “Infant mortality before ‘being’ problematic”
Martijn van der Meer (Erasmus University / Erasmus MC), “Infant mortality as a public problem”

Session d. Colonial health in history
Dinos Sevdalakis (University of Groningen), “Infant mortality in the colonial Senegalese
city, 1880-1920. Exploring the possibilities of civil registration documents as historical sources”
Leo van Bergen (independent historical researcher), “Dutch medical care: Why it didn’t result in population growth”

Plenary closing sessions

Johan Mackenbach (em. Erasmus MC) and Ralf Futselaar (Erasmus University) closed the meeting by reflecting on the four plenary sessions. You can find their PowerPoints by visiting this folder.

Johan gave a brief talk on why the concept of “the epidemiological transition” is too simplistic, before moving to parallel sessions b and c, on birth and death inequalities and infant mortality. He found them, as well as the keynote lecture, interesting and fruitful about how to combine quantitive and qualitative methods and perspectives. He concluded with two paradoxes. First, combining the quantative and qualitive approaches of, respectively, historical demography and medical history, seems to involve paying attention to changes at the macrolevel, within a long time frame, whilst at the same time zooming in on agency, events or practices at the microlevel wihtin a short time frame. Second, in order to combine quantative and qualitiative approaches, the sessions suggested that it was helpful to quantify the qualitative findings of medical history, such as how Martijn van der Meer did in session c.

Ralf Futselaar closed the day by asking “Are you all mad?”. Why on earth are historical demographers and medical historians trying to collaborate? Ralf’s talk perhaps gave the answer: he found that the approaches and the research questions of the two fiels were much closer to each other than we tend to think. Session a opened the debate about the “framing” of categories and definitions: what is health, what is a migrant? Session d showed very well the combination of the two fields and their methods, because in the context of colonial health, it is very obvious that the statistics should be interpreted and assessed critically. Whilst we may all be “mad” to strive for a collaboration between the two fields and their approaches, that may be the best and most fruitful thing we can strive for. He therefore applauded Mayra Murkens for initiating this meeting and he ended with the suggestion to install a “Mayra Murkens Award” for initiatives in this direction.

We hope that attendees enjoyed the afternoon and we invite all our members to join us for our next meeting in September 2023.