Aristotle in the Sex Shop and Activism in the Academy: Notes from the Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Four enormous, dead doctors were present at the opening of the 2017 Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine. Convened in Johns Hopkins University’s Welch Medical Library, the room was dominated by a canvas of mammoth proportions, a group portrait by John Singer Sargent of the four founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. William Welch, known in his lifetime as “the dean of American medicine” (and the library’s namesake). Dr. William Halsted, “the father of modern surgery.” Dr. Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine.” And Dr. Howard Kelly, who established the modern field of gynecology.

1905 Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler and Kelly (aka The Four Doctors) oil on canvas 298.6 x 213.3 cm Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore MD

John Singer Sargent, Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler, and Kelly (1905)

Beneath the gazes of this august quartet, graduate students and faculty from across the United States and the United Kingdom gathered for the fifteenth iteration of the Seminar. This year, the program’s theme was “Truth, Power, and Objectivity,” explored in thirteen papers ranging from medical testimony before the Goan Inquisition to the mental impact of First World War bombing raids, from Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Health Week to the emergence of Chinese traditional medicine. It would not do justice to the papers or their authors to cover them all in a post; instead I shall concentrate on the two opening sessions: the keynote lecture by Mary E. Fissell and a faculty panel with Nathaniel Comfort, Gianna Pomata, and Graham Mooney (all of Johns Hopkins University).

I confess to some surprise at the title of Fissell’s talk, “Aristotle’s Masterpiece and the Re-Making of Kinship, 1820–1860.” Fissell is known as an early modernist, her major publications exploring gender, reproduction, and medicine in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Her current project, however, is a cultural history of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a book on sexuality and childbirth first published in 1684 and still being sold in London sex shops in the 1930s. The Masterpiece was distinguished by its discussion of the sexual act itself, and its consideration (and copious illustrations) of so-called “monstrous births.” It was, in Fissell’s words, a “howling success,” seeing an average of one edition a year for 250 years, on both sides of the Atlantic.

It should be explained that there is very little Aristotle in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. In early modern Europe, the Greek philosopher was regarded as the classical authority on childbirth and sex, and so offered a suitably distinguished peg on which to hang the text. This allowed for a neat trick of bibliography: when the Masterpiece was bound together with other (spurious) works, like Aristotle’s Problems, the spine might be stamped with the innocuous (indeed impressive) title “Aristotle’s Works.”


El Greco, John the Baptist (c.1600)

At the heart of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Fissell argued, was genealogy: how reproduction—“generation,” in early modern terms—occurred and how the traits of parents related to those of their offspring. This genealogy is unstable, the transmission of traits open to influences of all kinds, notably the “maternal imagination.” The birth of a baby covered in hair, for example, could be explained by the pregnant mother’s devotion to an image of John the Baptist clad in skins. Fissell brilliantly drew out the subversive possibilities of the Masterpiece, as when it “advised” women that adultery might be hidden by imagining one’s husband during the sex act, thus ensuring that the child would look like him. Central though family resemblance is to reproduction, it is “a vexed sign,” with “several jokers in every deck,” because women’s bodies are mysterious and have the power to disrupt lineage.

Fissell principally considered the Masterpiece’s fortunes in the mid-nineteenth-century Anglophone world, as the unstable generation it depicted clashed with contemporary assumptions about heredity. Here she framed her efforts as a “footnote” to Charles Rosenberg’s seminal essay, “The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought in Nineteenth-Century America,” which traced how discourses of heredity pervaded all branches of science and medicine in this period. George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828), an exposition of the supposedly rigid natural laws governing heredity (with a tilt toward self-discipline and self-improvement), was the fourth-bestselling book of the period (after the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe). Other hereditarian works sketched out the gendered roles of reproduction—what children inherited from their mothers versus from their fathers—and the possibilities for human action (proper parenting, self-control) for modulating genealogy. Wildly popular manuals for courtship and marriage advised young people on the formation of proper unions and the production of healthy children, in terms shot through with racial and class prejudices (though not yet solidified into eugenics as we understand that term).

The fluidity of generation depicted in Aristotle’s Masterpiece became conspicuous against the background of this growing obsession with a law-like heredity. Take the birth of a black child to white parents. The Masterpiece explains that the mother was looking at a painting of a black man at the moment of conception; hereditarian thought identified a black ancestor some five generations back, the telltale trait slowly but inevitably revealing itself. Thus, although the text of the Masterpiece did not change much over its long career, its profile changed dramatically, because of the shifting bibliographic contexts in which it moved.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the contrasting worldviews of the Masterpiece and the marriage manuals spoke to the forms of familial life prevalent at different social strata. The more chaotic picture of the Masterpiece reflected the daily life of the working class, characterized by “contingent formations,” children born out of wedlock, wife sales, abandonment, and other kinds of “marital nonconformity.” The marriage manuals addressed themselves to upper-middle-class families, but did so in a distinctly aspirational mode. They warned, for example, against marrying cousins, precisely at a moment when well-to-do families were “kinship hot,” in David Warren Sabean’s words, favoring serial intermarriage among a few allied clans. This was a period, Fissell explained, in which “who and what counted as family was much more complex” and “contested.” The ambiguity—and power—of this issue manifested in almost every sphere, from the shifting guidelines for census-takers on how a “family” was defined, to novels centered on complex kinship networks, such as John Lang’s Will He Marry Her? (1858), to the flood of polemical literature surrounding a proposed law forbidding a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister—a debate involving many more people than could possibly have been affected by the legislation.

After a rich question-and-answer session, we shifted to the faculty panel, with Professors Comfort, Pomata, and Mooney asked to reflect on the theme of “Truth, Power, and Objectivity.” Comfort, a scholar of modern biology, began by discussing his work with oral histories—“creating a primary source as you go, and in most branches of history that’s considered cheating.” Here perfect objectivity is not necessarily helpful: “when you make yourself emotional availability to your subjects […] you can actually gain their trust in a way that you can’t otherwise.” Equally, Comfort encouraged the embrace of sources’ unreliability, suggesting that unreliability might itself be a source—the more unreliable a narrative is, the more interesting and the more indicative of something meant it becomes. He closed with the observation that different audiences required different approaches to history and to history-writing—it is not simply a question of tone or language, but of what kind of bond the scholar seeks to form.

Professor Pomata, a scholar of early modern medicine, insisted that moments of personal contact between scholar and subject were not the exclusive preserve of the modern historian: the same connections are possible, if in a more mediated fashion, for those working on earlier periods. In this interaction, respect is of the utmost importance. Pomata quoted a line from W. B. Yeats’s “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

As a historian of public health—which he characterized as an activist discipline—Mooney declared, “I’m not really interested in objectivity. […] I’m angry about what I see.” He spoke compellingly about the vital importance of that emotion, properly channeled toward productive ends. The historian possesses power: not simply as the person setting the terms of inquiry, but as a member of privileged institutions. In consequence, he called on scholars to undermine their own power, to make themselves uncomfortable.

The panel was intended to be open-ended and interactive, so these brief remarks quickly segued into questions from the floor. Asked about the relationship between scholarship and activism, Mooney insisted that passion, even anger, are essential, because they drive the scholar into the places where activism is needed—and cautioned that it is ultimately impossible to be the dispassionate observer we (think we) wish to be. With beautiful understatement, Pomata explained that she went to college in 1968, when “a lot was happening in the world.” Consequently, she conceived of scholarship as having to have some political meaning. Working on women’s history in the early 1970s, “just to do the scholarship was an activist task.” Privileging “honesty” over “objectivity,” she insisted that “scholarship—honest scholarship—and activism go together.” Comfort echoed much of this favorable account of activism, but noted that some venues are more appropriate for activism than others, and that there are different ways of being an activist.

Dealing with the horrific—eugenics was the example offered—requires, Mooney argued, both the rigor of a critical method and sensitive emotional work. Further, all three panelists emphasized crafting, and speaking in, one’s own voice, eschewing the temptation to imitate more prominent scholars and embracing the first person (and the subjectivity it marks). Voice, Comfort noted, isn’t natural, but something honed, and both he and Pomata recommended literature as an essential tool in this regard.

Throughout, the three panelists concurred in urging collaborative, interdisciplinary work, founded upon respect for other knowledges and humility—which, Comfort insightfully observed, is born of confidence in one’s own abilities. Asking the right questions is crucial, the key to unlocking the stories of the oppressed and marginalized within sources created by those in power. Visual sources have the potential to express things inexpressible in words—Comfort cited a photograph that wonderfully captured the shy, retiring nature of Dr. Barton Childs—but must be used, not mere illustrations. The question about visual sources was the last of the evening, and Professor Pomata had the last word. Her final comment offers the perfect summation of the creativity, dedication, and intellectual ferment on display in Baltimore that weekend: “we are artists, don’t forget that.”

Gold tried 500 times in the fire

by guest contributor Timothy Alborn, this post is a companion piece to his article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” now out in the most recent issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas.

Historians inevitably face the challenge of selecting a subset of primary sources to stand for a much larger body of research. This challenge is magnified in the case of the history of ideas, where the need to provide closer readings tends to diminish that already small sample size. My article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” distilled hundreds of sources from numerous genres down to a few dozen to explore the connection between Biblical metaphors that employed gold, British economic ideas, and what Linda Colley has termed “the forging of a nation” between 1750 and 1850. A section on the various uses of the metaphor of gold tried in the fire, for instance, quotes twenty-eight sources that employ that metaphor, or roughly five percent of the sources I consulted.
To find all these sources, I pursued two parallel tracks.  The first was part of a larger project on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain from 1780 to 1850, which will soon be published by Oxford University Press. For this project, I spent the last eight years looking for references to gold wherever they showed up: in treatises, novels, sermons, speeches, and newspaper articles, among many other sources.  The bulk of my research utilized such online databases as Eighteenth Century Collections Online (210 hits for gold tried in the fire), British Periodicals (48), British Library Newspapers (72), and Google Books. After realizing, a few years into this research, that gold appeared frequently and with interesting variations in numerous religious contexts, I did more targeted searches in these databases (see my full list of search terms below for “gold tried in the fire”).
In a blog post accompanying a different article I published two years ago in the Journal of Victorian Culture, I made a first foray into providing access to the larger cultural world that historians must curtail in order to “see the forest for the trees.” Here, I follow the model I used in that post, through the creation of a web page that breaks down my research notes for the “crucible” section of my article into several different topics (including references to affliction, illness or death, persecution, temptation, and secular uses). In the majority of cases where Google Books enabled this, I have linked these entries to the passages in the books and periodicals where I found them, to enable readers to explore their “natural habitat” (I tried to find the same version where there were multiple editions, but didn’t always succeed); and I’ve identified each author by religious denomination where I was able to discover that information.  I’ve also included a link to two Excel files I used: one tabulates my notes in order to locate patterns across these denominations (this includes some sources I didn’t transcribe in my notes), and the other (which I constructed by going through the Bible chapter by chapter using the service identifies all 440 Biblical passages that refer to gold.

Readers should feel free to use this collection however they see fit: as a resource for their own research; as an introduction to my own idiosyncratic research methodology (and in my experience every historian’s research methodology errs on the side of idiosyncrasy); or as an entertaining anthology, with plenty of amazing book titles such as Hymns, Cries, and Groans, lately extracted from a Mourner’s Memorandums.

Search terms:

forth as gold

come forth purified

forth like gold

gold in the fire

gold from the fire

out of the furnace

furnace of affliction

out of the fire

tried in the fire

purified in the fire

purified by fire

as refined gold
like pure gold

seven times purified

purified seven times

seven times in the fire

gold shines brightest

purer and brighter

passed through the fire

fiery trial

With a few exceptions, these sources were all published in the United Kingdom (or, rarely, one of its colonies) between 1750 and 1850–including sources that originally appeared in print prior to 1750 but were published at least once between 1750 and 1850.  I have reproduced the notes I took from each source, which are organized by topic and, within each topic, chronologically by original year of publication; where available, religious denomination is noted at the end of each entry.  In most cases you can click the title to get to the book or article via Google Books; the link should land you at the section quoted, and you can fan out from there to discover its context.

Timothy Alborn is Professor of History at Lehman College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author of Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), and Conceiving Companies: Joint- Stock Politics in Victorian England (Routledge, 1998). He has published widely on the cultural history of business in Victorian Britain in such journals as Victorian Studies, Business History Review, Journal of Victorian Culture, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, and Journal of Modern History. His Journal of the History of Ideas article, “The Greatest Metaphor Ever Mixed,” draws from research that will appear in a book on the cultural and economic history of gold in Britain that is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Institutionalized: Between American Political Development and Intellectual History

by contributing editor Daniel London

Two different kinds of literature sit uneasily next to each other on bookshelves. One group falls under the rubric of American political development (APD) scholarship, an innovative subfield of Political Science. The other books are more generally works of intellectual history and ideas, dedicated to understanding the development, articulation, and life of concepts. Looking to how APD scholars have theorized the role of ideas in their methodology, how can practitioners of both approaches better speak to and inform one another’s research?

Richard Hofstadter (photo by Bernard Gotfryd, circa 1970)

Richard Hofstadter (photo by Bernard Gotfryd, circa 1970)

Such cross-fertilization saw their last great period of flourishing in the 1950s as historians enlisted theories from both the social sciences and the humanities to explain American politics. Richard Hofstadter exemplified this tendency. Hofstadter conceived of politics neither as a pluralistic constellation of self-contained institutions nor as a terrain of materially-driven social conflicts. Rather, Hofstadter drew from the fields of cultural anthropology, social psychology, and Karl Mannheim’s theories on the sociology of knowledge to posit politics as a sphere of behavior in which culture—broadly defined in terms of ideas, attitudes, and values—determined the content of policies. For example, Hofstadter understood the source of Progressive-era politics as deriving from the collective rationalization of a middle-class aspiring to a particular status, rather than strictly class-based goals.

Ironically, Hofstadter’s formulations helped set the stage for a general reduction of politics to ‘the social’ for a generation of historians. New Left historical work in particular saw state institutions as epiphenomenal to the interests and ideologies of the groups which made them up. In response, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, several political scientists dubbed “Neo-Institutionalists” attempted to rescue political history from historians by devising a more complex and historically-grounded definition of their subject matter. Their efforts led to a seminal 1985 edited volume, Bringing the State Back In, which in turn gave impetus for the establishment of the journal Studies in American Political Development the following year. The rest is…well, you know.

APD scholarship explains durable shifts in governing authority via a historical-institutionalist lens. Institutions – governmental or nongovernmental –– function as “bundles of rules” that, while constantly evolving and interacting with broader social/cultural processes, nonetheless contain enough stability and authority to shape the behavior, power and policy preferences of political actors both within and without their boundaries. The activities of these institutions are, in turn, constrained and enabled by: a. the simultaneous and intercurrent activities of other institutional actors (even those who might formally comprise a single “political order”, such as a political party); and b. past policies whose consequences continue to shape the political terrain via “path-dependent” processes. Within this complicated environment, occasional openings for shifts in governing authority can open up: the ultimate subject of inquiry for an APD scholar becomes how and why institutional-grounded actors attempt to control these shifts at a given moment, why some succeed and others fail, and what the consequences of these shifts prove.

51cjmJt3GeL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_What attracts me to books influenced by the APD framework – classics include Theda Skocpol’s Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States and Richard Bensel’s The Political Economy of American Industrialization 1877-1900 – is their ability to ground enormous and significant questions in empirically robust and temporally complex narratives. There are no “black boxes” in these books and few monocausal explanations or unidirectional narratives: rather, they account for political transformation via detailed analysis of the resources, motivations, and interactions of a constellation of political actors while situating them in a dynamic context that, from the very beginning, is shaped by deeply historical constraints and opportunities. The sins we usually associate with political science – a-historical functionalism, game theory, rational choice theory – are not in evidence here.

Where do ideas fit into the APD framework? Let us begin with the six-step ideal-type sequence of how political development actually occurs that political scientist Roger Smith sketched:

  1. Contexts of Human Institutions, Practices, Ideas, Natural Orders
  2. Formation of Ideas, Interests and Goals
  3. Coalition Formation and Competition
  4. Capture of Governing Institutions & Policies
  5. Modification of Contexts
  6. Formation of New Contexts

From a given context, political actors inherit and modify their own sets of ideas, interests, and assumptions about the world. These, in turn, create opportunities and constraints for devising new policies and building new alliances within and across institutions in order to achieve them. The third stage comprises actual attempts by these modified institutions to acquire the resources and positions necessary for implementing their policies – typically through the capture of strategic institutions or the formation of new ones. The fourth stage involves the nitty-gritty of getting policies passed and implemented within these transformed institutions, often involving quite a bit of compromise and horse-trading along the way. The consequences of policy implementation then modifies the contexts we began with, thus repeating the cycle. This ideal-type directionality is complicated by the facts that: a. no single stage constitutes the primal “ground” from which the spiral proceeds; every stage is a product of what has come before and feeds into what comes after; b. what drives activity along this spiral, what the consequences of action along the spiral are, and by what route processes proceed through the spiral are completely open, historical, and empirical questions; and c. the real-time actions of other intercurrent actors are constantly influencing every stage of this cycle.

So, where do ideas exist and function in this particular model of APD? Things seem clearest in Stages 2 and 3, which seems to approximate the domain of the Habermasian “public sphere.” The ideas actors use to justify their interests (and the way they frame them) can determine the kind of coalitions they might expect to form in these stages. Whether ideas have this kind of causal power is not a given, however: the influence of ideas, for an APD scholar, must be demonstrated empirically and in explicit relation to the goals, rules, roles, and problems as defined by different institutionally-bound actors at any given time. Ideas also seem to be active in the policy-negotiation stage of phase four, although their precise role is often complicated by the lack of overlap between the goals and assumptions of different negotiators (even within the same political party). For this reason, it is rarely the case that a piece of legislation ‘reflects’ a single idea. On the other hand, following the development of policy formation can often serve to reveal hidden assumptions that could only emerge in the flux of argument, and which can have unexpected influences on the ultimate shape of policy.

It is only partly true APD scholars interest themselves in ideas to the degree that they serve an explanatory function as a “cause” or “enabling condition” for shifts in authority later on. But if we interpret “ideas” broadly here, as political historian George Thomas suggests, there is enormous room for the kind of deep, textured, and hermeneutic work that characterizes the best of intellectual history. In this broader reading, institutions do not merely serve as carriers and receivers of ideas– ideas constituted them. The legitimacy and authority of an institution depends on certain assumptions on what constitutes a fact, on what the “roles” of certain actors are, on where the boundaries between the private and the public lie. Changes in these intellectual underpinnings can (though not always) destabilize the position of institutions and/or provide the basis for the formation of new ones.

I think intellectual historians and their methodology have the most to contribute to APD scholarship on this point. Traditional concerns of intellectual historians – the way a single concept means different things to different people, the way seemingly unrelated topics interact and blend in the minds of actors, and other concerns of intellectual historians – have great potential bearing on the works of APD scholars, not least because they specify the hidden structures of logic and meaning that determine the kind of policies actors believed were possible and desirable. A nuanced investigation of these structures at stage one and two of Smith’s cycle can create a dramatically different explanatory agenda further down the cycle.

At the same time, I believe that the kinds of concerns and approaches adopted by APD scholars can inform the work of intellectual historians. Most obviously, Smith’s “spiral of politics” provides us with broader contexts in which to trace the origin, development, and influence of ideas. The arena of policy negotiation, the process of coalition formation, the structuring and restructuring of institutions: all these hold enormous potential as “sites” of intellectual history. The APD concepts of “intercurrence” and “path-dependence” might also be translated and operationalized into intellectual-history work, though this will take some trial-and-error. But these are only my initial impressions and suggestions. In what ways do you think intellectual historians and APD scholars can borrow from and assist each other – and where might be sources of tension that might have to be addressed for this to take place?