HHH spring meeting 2024: Medical biography: A contested genre?

On Friday March 8, HHH members met in the beautiful venue of the Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam, for our annual spring meeting. The theme of this year’s meeting was medical biography, and the meeting explored what this genre can bring to medical historians. In past decades, biographies have been arguably pushed to the margins of the historical discipline, mostly left to popular writers. But, whatever its previous academic reputation, it is clear that medical biography has made a comeback, as the current biographical projects of several HHH members highlight. The meeting was an opportunity to evaluate the opportunities offered by this genre and to revisit its history.

Daniël de Moulin lecture by Carolyn Eastman: Addiction, Instability and Other Anachronisms

The meeting opened with the annual Daniël de Moulin lecture, delivered by Carolyn Eastman, Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. Carolyn spoke about her research into the life of James Ogilvie, a Scottish teacher who, for a brief time, became an incredibly famous orator in 19th-century America. Her research resulted in the publication of The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity (OI / UNC Press, 2021), which received the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction and the James Bradford Best Biography prize. Carolyn focused her talk on Ogilvie’s addiction to opium, his struggles with mental health, and her own relationship to these aspects of his life. Unless what we may assume today about the stigma associated to mental conditions, Ogilvie never made a mystery of his addiction nor of his melancholy. His relationship to opium was even discussed in the American press, and he regularly talked with friends about his melancholic episodes. As Carolyn told the audience, Ogilvie’s openness led her, in a way, to underestimate his suffering. At the same time, however, it allowed her to view his addiction in the same way that he and his entourage viewed it: as a blessing as well as a curse, as a way to make his oratorial shows even more brilliant and lively. Carolyn’s talk showed the value of avoiding making 21st-century diagnoses of historical actors.


After Carolyn’s talk and a break, HHH members split into groups for two parallel workshop sessions. These sessions provided an open and informal environment to discuss the research and writing of medical biographies in practice. Catharina Th. Bakker offered an overview of different kinds of biographies and listed the resources open to historians for writing biographies. Peter Jan Margry started from his research on the physiotherapist Johan Mezger to discuss writing a biography at the crossover of different fields, such as history, medicine, and ethnology. In the second session, Nele Beyens revisited the history of the biographical genre, showing that biography was never truly reviled, and that historians have much to learn from a biographical approach. Toine Pieters discussed the biography, not of a human person, but of a disease, Lepra, in relation to the puzzling definitions the WHO gave for it.

Antonie Luyendijk-Elshout Early Career Impact Award

The meeting ended with the announcement of the winner of the Antonie Luyendijk-Elshout Early Career Impact Award. The HHH board received six excellent submissions for the prize, but one stood out for its quality and impact: Antje Van Kerckhove‘s master’s research and outreach projects on the effects of DES in Belgium. DES is a synthetic estrogen that was prescribed to pregnant women until the late 1970s under the mistaken belief that it would prevent miscarriages. To this day, children who were exposed to the drug in the womb suffer from adverse health outcomes related to the reproductive organs. Overall, Antje’s research highlighted the overlooked history of DES in Belgium and catalyzed concrete political action, giving voice to DES victims in their quest for justice and recognition. Read more about Antje’s work

Thank you to all those who attended this year’s spring meeting. We hope to see you at the next one!