Register for HHH spring meeting on medical biography (March 8)

Medical biography: A contested genre?

8 March, Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam

We are delighted to publish the programme of this spring’s HHH meeting. As always, participation in the meeting is free and open to anyone. Please register by sending an email to: and specify which workshops you would like to attend (Round 1: Bakker or Margry; Round 2: Beyens or Pieters). We hope to see you in Amsterdam on March 8!

Biography is a contested genre in the historical discipline, sometimes seen as the relic of an older big-man style of history. Yet it also appears as a rich medium to tell the stories of historical actors, be they humans, objects, or diseases. So, what can biographies and their specific methodologies bring to the history of medicine? 

The keynote lecture (Daniël de Moulin lecture) will be delivered by Carolyn Eastman, Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University and book review editor for the William and Mary Quarterly. Her research focuses on the cultural and intellectual history of early America and the Atlantic world, political culture, gender, and the history of print, oral, and visual media. She is the author of the prizewinning A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution (Chicago, 2009), and The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity (OI / UNC Press, 2021), the latter of which received the Library of Virginia Literary Award for Nonfiction and the James Bradford Best Biography prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. She is currently developing a new project on Black and white New Yorkers’ experiences with the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s, seeking to understand both how they confronted the disease and how the epidemics ended.


12.45 – 13.00 ‘Inloop’ and Welcome

13.00 – 13.45 Daniël de Moulin lecture: Carolyn Eastman (Virginia Commonwealth University).
“Addiction, Mental Instability, and Other Anachronisms: Writing Biographies that Reveal (not
Diagnose) the Past”
Biographers learn early on to “show, don’t tell” the lives of their subjects and the worlds they inhabited. But how do we discuss subjects that our 21st-century readers struggle to fathom for earlier eras, particularly involving aspects of what we would call variously self- medication, addiction, mental health/illness, and healthcare? Moreover, how do we do so in ways that bring readers closer to the worlds of the past? This talk draws on my own recent choices in The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States’ First Forgotten Celebrity (2021), and considers the role of narrative in revealing — rather than offering 21st-century diagnoses for — the past.

13.45 – 14.30 Workshop round 1 with a choice between two workshops
● Catharina Th. Bakker. “Who is Marietje? A Puzzling Story.” The workshop focuses on the finding and use of primary sources while writing a biography. Marietje illustrates the challenges of searching, finding and making sense of primary source material in biographical research.
● Peter Jan Margry. “Dr. Johan Mezger (1838-1909), the inventor of physiotherapy: revered and reviled.” This session discusses the methodological problems and the disciplinary crossover approach (history, medicine, and ethnology) related to my research on Mezger, a MD who proposed a new, dynamic way of healing patients with joint and muscle disorders. His therapy was widely hailed by Europe’s elite, but his unwillingness to reflect theoretically on his methods marked the beginning of his decline. His last act, post-mortem, was to have all his archives destroyed.

14.30 – 15.15 Coffee / Tea

15.15 – 16.00 Workshop round 2 with a choice between two workshops
● Nele Beyens. “The medical biography. Opportunities and challenges.” Many people love a good biography, others see biographies with suspicion. During the workshop we will discuss the position of the biography within academic (medical) history writing. We will have a closer look at what the genre has on offer, as well as at the challenges posed by writing a biography.
● Toine Pieters, “Puzzling over the multiple identities of the Hansen Disease (Lepra).” The year 2023
marked the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the lepra bacterium ‘Mycobacterium leprae (M.leprae)’ by the Norwegian doctor Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841-1912). A century after the discovery the WHO adopted leprosy as an eradicable neglected tropical disease, in other words as a disease with a biographical end date. Based on historical puzzle pieces, the workshop will be about the question of why, according to the WHO, the identity of lepra lends itself to a ‘best before date’ whereas there is mounting historical evidence that M.Leprae and leprosy are here ‘to stay’.

16.00 – 16.30 Concluding discussion

16.30 – 16.45 Antonie Luyendijk-Elshout early career Impact Award announcement