Deafness as a Public Health Issue in the 1920s & 1930s (Part 2 of 2)

Today we have part two of a guest post written by Dr. Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi, the 2016 Klemperer Fellow in the History of Medicine at the New York Academy of Medicine and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. She is working on her first book, Hearing Happiness: Fakes, Fads, and Frauds in Deafness Cures, which examines the medical history of hearing loss and “quack cures” for deafness. Some of these cures are explored on her blog, From the Hands of Quacks. You can find her on twitter as @jaivirdi.

Promotional photo by the New York League for the Hard of Hearing and its hearing clinic for testing and examination (The Bulletin, Dec. 1935)

Promotional photo by the New York League for the Hard of Hearing and its hearing clinic for testing and examination (The Bulletin, Dec. 1935)

The New York League for the Hard of Hearing launched several campaigns during the 1930s addressing the “psychological aspect” of acquired deafness mentioned by Wendell C. Phillips. Since deafness is an invisible affliction, Phillips emphasized the deafened person often feels isolated and unable to adjust to the sensory change, especially if the hearing loss occurred suddenly. Other otologists agreed as many patients narrated similar stories: their hearing was perfectly fine and normal, then one day something happened and they became deaf, and the process of coming to terms to the newfound deafened state was a difficult one. Illness such as influenza, pneumonia, meningitis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, or ear abscesses were usually the culprit. So too were heard injuries, age-onset deafness in the elderly, misuse of drugs such as quinine, a poor diet (including too much sugar), and other ordinary factors:

“It is well to bear in mind the effects of hair-dyes, excessive smoking or drinking, and indeed, improper underwater swimming and diving. Vigorous blowing of the nose is also frequent causes of hearing impairment.”[1] 

Otologists claimed individuals needed to take responsibility for their hearing—to conserve what hearing one had, through proper diet, lifestyle, and hygiene, before it disintegrated. This was a remarkable shift from the 1920s “prevention of deafness” campaigns that concentrated on a screening program of early detection and medical care. While constant surveillance was still promoted, the late-1930s campaigns transformed hearing loss into an affliction that could easily be treated or managed by good habits.

Pamphlets reveal how parents were encouraged to become more “ear-minded” toward their children, that is, to pay attention if their child exhibits any signs of hearing loss, to avoid a circumstance in which a neglected hearing issue ends up turning a deafened child into a problem.

Advertisement for the New York League Hard of Hearing (The Bulletin, 1934).

Advertisement for the New York League Hard of Hearing (The Bulletin, 1934).

Image 6b

Advertisement for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing (The [Hearing] News, October 1935)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In other words, the “problem of deafness” became less about the triumphs of medical cures for hearing loss or social organizations providing communication services, but more about conserving one’s hearing before it was gradually diminished. Themes for “Better Hearing Week” especially reflect this: the 1937 theme was “It’s Sound Sense to Conserve Hearing,” while the 1938 was “Help Conserve Hearing.”

Front page of the October 1937 issue of The Bulletin magazine, promoting the National Hearing Week, with reprints of letters from FDR.

Front page of the October 1937 issue of The Bulletin magazine, promoting the National Hearing Week, with reprints of letters from FDR

The American Society for the Hard of Hearing also launched their own campaigns. In 1937, the organization listed a four-point program publicizing their mandates: the prevention of deafness, the conservation of hearing, the alleviation of social conditions affecting the hard of hearing, and rehabilitation. In addition to popular radio broadcasts on the National Broadcasting System, 327 feature articles and 189 editorials were released in over 1600 newspapers.

“Hearing through Life,” a national campaign launched by the ASHH (Hygeia, October 1937).

“Hearing through Life,” a national campaign launched by the ASHH (Hygeia, October 1937).

The publicity campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s were really about transforming public perceptions of the hard of hearing and deafened as handicapped persons, rather than as “defectives”—an important observation in light of the eugenicist concerns of the period. But they were also about addressing hearing impairment not as a social or educational issue, but as a public health issue, one that required cooperation between different levels of civic infrastructures. As otologist Edmund Prince Fowler noted in 1940, the hearing impaired “should never be dismissed with the thought, “Nothing can be done.”[2]

Promotional photo for the League’s “Children’s Auditory Training Project” campaign of the 1940s (The Bulletin, Nov-Dec, 1949)

Promotional photo for the League’s “Children’s Auditory Training Project” campaign of the 1940s (The Bulletin, Nov-Dec, 1949)

Special thanks are owed to Arlene Shaner at the NYAM Library for her generous research assistance and lively conversations.

References

[1] Samuel Zwerling, “Problems of the Hard of Hearing,” Hearing News (January 1938).

[2] Bulletin of the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, 18.7 (November 1940).

Deafness as a Public Health Issue in the 1920s & 1930s (Part 1 of 2)

Today we have part one of a guest post written by Dr. Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi, the 2016 Klemperer Fellow in the History of Medicine at the New York Academy of Medicine and a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. She is working on her first book, Hearing Happiness: Fakes, Fads, and Frauds in Deafness Cures, which examines the medical history of hearing loss and “quack cures” for deafness. Some of these cures are explored on her blog, From the Hands of Quacks. You can find her on twitter as @jaivirdi.

In 1935, physician Francis L. Rogers of Long Beach read a paper addressing the worrisome statistics of deafness. One study discovered nearly thirty-five thousand Americans were deaf. Another found that out of a million people tested for their hearing, 6% had significant hearing impairment. Yet another study reported three million people had some kind of hearing impairment. This “problem of deafness,” Rogers emphasized, “is primarily of public health and public welfare.” Not only were there too many people failing to adequately care for their hearing, but many cities, schools, and governments lacked the proper infrastructure to educate the public on the importance of hearing preservation. Indeed, as Rogers stressed: “Today the three great public health problems confronting the world are heart disease, cancer, and deafness.”[1]

Image 1

A window display in Detroit (Hearing News, June 1942)

The notion of deafness being statistically worrying as a public health issue actually dates to the late nineteenth century, especially to the work of otologist James Kerr Love of Glasgow. Love conducted several statistical studies of the ears of deaf schoolchildren, discovering that the majority of them were not completely deaf, but had some level of “residual” hearing. With proper medical treatment, the hearing could be intensified enough to warrant a “cure.” For other cases, children could be taught to make use of that residual hearing through invasive training using acoustic aids and other kinds of hearing technologies.

Love’s research concluded that many deafness cases could actually be relieved if the ears of children were examined early and frequently—that is, deafness could be prevented. His “prevention of deafness” concept was influential for the new generation of otologists in America, especially those who were members of the New York Academy of Medicine’s Section of Otology during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

To raise awareness on the necessity of proper medical examinations and frequent hearing tests, these otologists collaborated with social organizations such as the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, which was established in 1910. The League was a progressive group catering to the needs of hard of hearing or deafened persons who were raised in a hearing society rather than in a D/deaf community and communicated primarily with speech and lip-reading rather than sign language. Composed mostly of white, middle-class, and educated members who lost their hearing from illness, injury, or progressive deafness, the League strove to construct hearing impairment as a medical issue. They argued hearing impairment was not an issue of education or communication, but rather a handicap.

Image 2

An otologist examining a young patient’s ear (Hygeia, June 1923)

The collaboration between New York otologists and the League eventually created a national network of experts, social services, teachers, physicians, and volunteers who banded together to address the so-called “problem of deafness.” That is, the problem of how to best integrate the hard of hearing, the deafened, and to some extent, even the deaf-mutes, into society. One key achievement of the League was the establishment of hearing clinics to properly assess hearing impairment, especially in children, to ensure medical care could be provided before it was too late. This project was primarily spearheaded by Harold M. Hays (1880-1940), who was recruited as president of the League in 1913, becoming the first active otologist collaborating with the League. After the First World War, Hays set up a clinic for treating hearing loss in children at the Manhattan Eye, Ear, and Throat Hospital.

Image 3

Group hearing tests of schoolchildren, using an audiometer. Headphones are used first on the right ear, then the left. (Hygeia, February 1928)

Hays claimed that hearing impairment might be a handicap, but “the sad part of it is that 90 percent of all hearing troubles could be corrected if they were treated at the proper time.” With regular hearing tests, this was possible. Yet, as Hays argued, regular hearing tests were not considered on par with other hygienic measures under public health services:

We are saving the child’s eyes! We are saving the child’s teeth! Is it not worth while to save the child’s ears?”[2]

During the 1920s, Hays’ activism for regular hearing tests was so instrumental that in 1922, the League’s newsletter, The Chronicle, told its readers “we believe that the League would justify its existence if it did no other work than to prevent as much deafness as possible.”  To achieve this mandate, the League launched a large public campaign to raise awareness on the importance of medical care. Indeed, in one report for the League, Hays remarked that with the increased publicity, there were 10,000 calls to the League in 1918 alone inquiring about aural examinations. A steady increase in patients would follow: 17 clinic patients in 1924, 326 in 1926, and then 1,531 in 1934.

Another publicity campaign spearheaded by the League was the establishment of “Better Hearing Week” in 1926, a week-long awareness program (later renamed “National Hearing Week”). Held in October, the campaign included symposium discussions on the “Problems of the Hard of Hearing,” including topics on the relationship between the physician and his deafened patient, how the deafened could build their lives, and even on newest technological developments in hearing aids. October issues of The Bulletin (the renamed League newsletter) and the Hearing News, the newsletter of the American Society for the Hard of Hearing (ASHH) included reprints of letters from prominent leaders supporting the mandates of “Better Hearing Week,” including letters from President Roosevelt and New York Mayor LaGuardia.

Image 4

Advertisement for Western Electric Hearing Aid, the “Audiophone.” These before-and-after shots were powerful for demonstrating the effects of “normal” hearing, sending the message that outward signs of deafness, such as the “confused face,” could easily disappear once being fitted properly with a hearing aid. (Hearing News, December 1936)

The 1920s publicity campaigns were primarily focused on fostering ties between otologists and the League, in cooperation with hospitals and schools. In 1927, the League purchased audiometers and offered invitations to conduct hearing tests in schools across New York, so children with hearing impairment could be assessed accordingly. Two years later, the League worked with Bell Laboratories to further substantiate the conviction that deafness was a serious problem amongst schoolchildren and that something needed to be done.

At the same time otologists across America established joint ventures between organizations like the America Medical Association and the American Otological Society. They formed committees to write reports to the White House on the national importance of addressing the “prevention of deafness.” Wendell C. Phillips (1857-1934), another president of the League and the founder of ASHH, particularly emphasized the need to address the “psychologic conditions and mental reactions” of the deafened patient, for the tragedy of acquired deafness meant it is a “disability without outward signs, for the deafened person uses no crutch, no black goggles, no tapping staff.”[3] It was an invisible handicap that needed to be made visible if it was to be prevented, if not cured.

References

[1] The Federation News, August 1935.

[2] Harold M. Hays, “Do Your Ears Hear?” Hygeia (April 1925).

[3] Wendell C. Phillips, “Reminiscences of an Otologist,” Hygeia (October 1930).

Presentations Announced for the Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night: Insights from the Early Modern Period

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Section on History of Medicine will hold the “Fifth Annual History of Medicine Night: Insights from the Early Modern Period” on March 11 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm at NYAM, 1216 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd Street. Register to attend here.
RBR shelfPresenters will address historical topics relating to medicine with a focus on the Early Modern period.  This year’s presenters are:

Barbara Chubak, MD
Urology Resident (PGY-5), Montefiore Medical Center
“Imagining Sex Change in Early Modern Europe”

Jeffrey M. Levine, MD
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine and Palliative Care
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
“A Fresh Look at the Historiated Initials in the De Humani Corporis Fabrica”

John E. Jacoby, MD, MPH
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
“On the Life of Dr. Robert Levett: The Philosophy of Primary Care”

Nina Samuel, PhD
Center for Literary and Cultural Research
University of Berlin
“The Art of Hand Surgery”

Michelle Laughran, PhD
Associate Professor of History
Saint Joseph’s College of Maine
“The Medical Renaissance among Three Plagues: Epidemic Disease, Heresy and Calumny in Sixteenth-Century Venice”

Sharon Packer, MD
Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
“Epidemic Ergotism, Medieval Mysticism & Future Trends in Palliative Care”

Part two of this lecture series, “History of Medicine Night: 19th– and 20th-Century Stories,” will take place on May 6, 2015.

Who Becomes a Medical Doctor in New York City: Call for Papers

RBR deskThe New York Academy of Medicine’s Section on History of Medicine is pleased to announce “Who Becomes a Medical Doctor in New York City: Then and Now—A Century of Change” to be held on December 11, 2014 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm. The event will take place at the Academy, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd Street.

We are inviting all those interested in presenting to submit an abstract with one aspect of how individuals were selected, or excluded from, the study of medicine in New York City over time. These might include, but need not be limited to, decisions based on academic qualification, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, economics, and country of origin. The influence of career expectations for the profession and social and cultural factors motivating individuals to become a medical doctor may also be considered.

Note the following submission requirements:

  • Applications must include an abstract, with a 250-word maximum, and this form.
  • Abstracts must be submitted no later than October 30, 2014

The time allotted for presentation is 12 minutes with an additional 3 minutes for questions/discussion. Papers selected for presentation will be determined by a committee of History of Medicine Section members and staff of The New York Academy of Medicine.

Abstracts should be submitted electronically to Suhani Parikh at sparikh@nyam.org.  Questions may be directed to Suhani via email or phone (212-419-3544).

History Night Presentations Announced

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Section on History of Medicine will hold the “Fourth Annual History of Medicine Night – Part One: Spotlight on New York” on February 6 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm at NYAM, 1216 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd Street. Register to attend here. A second evening of presentations is being planned for spring.

RBR deskThe night will feature the following presentations, as described by the speakers:

“Psychiatric Criminology in the Eugenic Era: The New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory, 1915-1929”
Sara Bergstresser, M.P.H., Ph.D., Columbia University, Bioethics

“First, I explore the historical background of North American and European psychiatry, criminology, and eugenics in the nineteenth century, including threads of early convergence. Next, I examine the development of eugenic psychiatry and its intersections with eugenic criminology, with a particular emphasis on New York State in the early twentieth century. I then present a case study from that time period, which is based primarily on materials from the archives of the New York Police Psychopathic Laboratory. I go on to argue that in this case the workings of psychiatric criminology were more eclectic and uncertain than they may otherwise appear based on broad descriptions of the eugenic era.”

“Not for Self but Others: The Presbyterian Hospital Goes to War”
Pascal J. de Caprariis, M.D., Lutheran Medical Center

“On March 11, 1940 the U.S. Surgeon General reached out to Presbyterian Hospital’s medical board president to develop a military hospital to support US troops in an eventual war. Structured to receive patients from combat areas and follow American troops throughout war, it was to provide complex medical and surgical care over the course of three years and two months abroad.”

“The Cancer Education Campaigns in Progressive Era New York City: The Role of Women”
Elaine Schattner, M.A., M.D., F.A.C.P., Weill Cornell Medical College

“At the start of the 20th century, myths about cancer’s causes and treatments were widespread. Fear of the disease—and of inept surgeons—was rampant. Many afflicted fell prey to hoaxers selling bogus salves, patent medicines and painless “cures.” In April 1913, a prominent New York City surgeon and gynecologist, Dr. Clement Cleveland, invited a group of well-to-do ladies, bankers and physicians to his home. They heard from statisticians and public health specialists, and considered what might be done to reduce cancer’s mounting toll. The group met formally again in June 1913 at the Harvard Club in New York City. They formed the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC), which three decades later became the American Cancer Society.”

“A Diagnosis of Philanthropy: Carnegie and Rockefeller and the Medical Profession”
Catherine (Katia) Sokoloff, Sarah Lawrence College

“Through exploring the evolving interests of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller during the Progressive Era, this paper unearths how these philanthropists and their advisers facilitated and funded the writing of the infamous Flexner Report in 1910. The report, also called Bulletin Number Four, exposed the inadequacies of medical schools and catalyzed dramatic education reforms.”

“Organizing Orthopaedic Societies in New York City in the 1880s: The New York Orthopaedic Society, the New York Academy of Medicine Section of Orthopaedic Surgery and the American Orthopaedic Association”
Jonathan B. Ticker, M.D., College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University

“After the seventh general meeting of the New York Orthopaedic Society (NYOS) on January 4, 1886, steps were taken to merge NYOS into a section of the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM). Thus, on January 29, 1886, NYOS adjourned and the NYAM Section of Orthopaedic Surgery began. On January 29th, 1887, the chairman of the Section and 15 others “[met] and [discussed] the organization of a national orthopaedic society.” This led to the founding of the American Orthopaedic Association (AOA).”

History Night: Call for Papers

RBR desk

The New York Academy of Medicine’s Section on History of Medicine is pleased to announce its Annual History of Medicine night to be held on February 6, 2014 from 6:00 pm–7:30 pm. The event will take place at the Academy, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 103rd Street.

We are inviting all those interested in presenting to submit a narrative on a historical subject relating to medicine for consideration.

Note the following submission requirements:

  • Applications must include an abstract, with a  500-word maximum, and this form
  • Abstracts must be submitted no later than January 15, 2014

The time allotted for presentation is 12 minutes with an additional 3 minutes for questions/discussion. Papers selected for presentation will be determined by a panel of History of Medicine Section members.

Abstracts should be submitted electronically to Donna Fingerhut at dfingerhut@nyam.org.  Questions may be directed to Donna via email or phone (212-419-3645).

Rehousing the Diploma Collection

Today’s post was written by the 2013 Gladys Brooks Conservation Intern, Caroline Evans.

The diploma collection at The New York Academy of Medicine contains over eight hundred certificates, diplomas, seals and proclamations granted by universities, professional societies and institutions across a wide geographical span. The items in the collection range from the mid-eighteenth century up to the late twentieth century. The diplomas were the subjects of a major collections care project carried out in the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Lab by Caroline Evans (summer intern), with the assistance of Emily Moyer (Collections Care Assistant) and Allie Rosenthal (volunteer).

Piles of diplomas to be sorted, cleaned, and housed.

Piles of diplomas to be sorted, cleaned, and housed.

While most of the earlier diplomas are printed or written on parchment and display elaborate calligraphy, many of the later items in the collection are printed on paper. The diplomas can provide a glimpse into the changing methods of printing during this period, as well as into the preservation needs of flat paper—in some cases, for instance, some of the ink in the signatures had begun to flake, and seals on parchment were cracked. In addition to dry cleaning the diplomas and making the appropriate efforts to stabilize each of these items, we constructed folders and housing for each diploma or seal before sorting them by size, date, and granting institution.

Over the course of this undertaking, some gems emerged—documents significant to the history of the Academy and to the history of medicine. Among these are certificates nominating and appointing military ranks to fellows of the Academy and other doctors serving in wartime. In addition to signatures from the “Secretary of War”, many of these documents boast signatures from various Presidents of the United States. Indeed, while sorting through the collection, we encountered wartime documents—appointments or commendations thanking military doctors for their service—with signatures from Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding, to name a few.

Certificate signed by Woodrow Wilson.

Certificate signed by Woodrow Wilson.

Certificate signed by Andrew Johnson.

Certificate signed by Andrew Johnson.

Certificate signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Certificate signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Occasionally found tacked onto the back of certificates and acknowledgments of service were documents indicating the intersection of military service and medical research—for example, a letter from Walter Reed Hospital to a soldier encouraging him to participate in a study on the effect of injections of yellow fever. There are also a significant number of female medical professionals whose successes and contributions to the field of medicine and women’s health are commemorated in the collection. Some of these awards and diplomas are dated as early as the nineteenth century.

Photographs of Howard and Edith Lilienthal attached to a certificate

Photographs of Howard and Edith Lilienthal attached to a passport.

The diploma collection contains items printed in French, Portuguese, Hungarian, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic that display a variety of design styles.  One particularly beautiful certificate from 1945 was granted by the Société Impériale de Médecine de Constantinople, written in Arabic on thin paper with gold leaf.

Certificate in Arabic with gold ornament

Certificate in Arabic with gold ornament

Key to the City of San Juan Batista, granted to Isidor Rubin.

Key to the City of San Juan Batista, granted to Isidor Rubin.

Some more recent certificates are printed in color, with hand-colored borders and modern, stylized type. The diplomas on paper were a special challenge to clean and house, as many of the papers had become brittle or were adhered to acidic backings. This allowed the aspiring conservators interning and volunteering in the lab ample practice with paper repair. Diplomas printed on vellum provided their own challenges, however, as humidity fluctuations over time caused some of the works to curl and stretch, obscuring and fading labels and printed text.

Repairing paper certificates in the conservation lab.

Repairing paper certificates in the conservation lab.

These challenges, in addition to the diverse languages present in the collection, necessitated some additional investigation for the creation of new labels for each item. In the end, though, the lab was able to create a location guide with the identifying information for each sorted, cleaned, and re-housed object, so that the diploma collection will be accessible well into the future.

A certificate and seal, re-housed.

A certificate and seal, re-housed.

Holiday News from the Center

NYAM Library, Rare Book Room photos by Amy Hart © 2012As the year comes to an end, there is a lot going at the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health.

♦ We are planning our 2014 Festivals (there will be two! Save the date for the first on April 5. Keep an eye out for details coming early next year).

♦ On December 4, we will welcome a number of influential librarians to an informal roundtable to discuss the impact of open access publishing for libraries, researchers, and users. Simon Chaplin, Head of the London Wellcome library, will take part in this discussion, and in the evening present a lecture on the (often eccentric) history of medical tourism. Both events are free but require pre-registration (follow the links to register).

♦ For those in the scholarly world, details of our two research fellowships have just gone live:

  • The Paul Klemperer Fellowship supports research using our collections for the history of medicine. Find out more here.
  • The Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship supports work in the history of medicine and public health, with a particular focus on the use of visual materials. More details here.

Applications close March 4, 2014 for the 20142015 academic year. We encourage applicants to get in touch with our Reference Librarian for Historical Collections when shaping their applications.

♦ We are accepting applications for the 2014 Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Internship now through December 15, 2013. For more information about eligibility, click here.

♦ The Center is growing! We are looking for a curator to join the team to help us develop our scholarly and public presence through exhibitions, programming, and collection development. For more details see the job description here.

♦ The library closes early today, November 27, and will be closed on Thursday and Friday, November 28 and 29. We will also be closed on December 24 and 25.

“A Passionate Statistician”: Florence Nightingale and the Numbers Game

In conjunction with its exhibit, “Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement,” the Grolier Club is holding a symposium on October 26, 2013, to which all are welcome. The exhibition and symposium explore the contributions of 32 women, one being Florence Nightingale, to science and medicine. The exhibition features NYAM’s copy of one of Nightingale’s statistical charts. In today’s blog post, Natasha McEnroe, director of London’s Florence Nightingale Museum, explains their significance.

Florence Nightingale. Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Florence Nightingale. Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

The Victorians loved nothing better than to measure and classify, trying to discover natural laws through the data they recorded, and Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was no exception in sharing this general enthusiasm. Having gained celebrity status from her nursing work at the infamous Barracks Hospital at Scutari, the British base hospital in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Nightingale returned to England with her health permanently broken down. Determined that the appalling treatment of the soldiers during the war should not be repeated, she spent the rest of her life conducting a political campaign for health reform from her bedroom. One of the ways her campaigning was groundbreaking was in the use of statistics.

Reproduced by courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

St Thomas’ Hospital, London, home of the Nightingale Training School for nurses. Reproduced courtesy of the Florence Nightingale Museum.

Nightingale’s love of mathematics was apparent from an early age and was an interest  encouraged by her father, who took the responsibility of educating his daughters into his own hands. Her parents’ social circle brought the young Nightingale into contact with many of the most brilliant minds of the age, including Charles Babbage, whose own passion for numbers (and not a little pedantry) is shown in a letter to Alfred Tennyson in response to the poem The Vision of Sin:

‘In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

…If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest that the next version of your poem should read:
Every moment dies a man,
Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.’

Just weeks after her return from the Crimean War in 1856, Nightingale secured a Royal Commission from Queen Victoria investigating the health of the British Army. Nightingale herself was involved in every step of the Commission’s investigations, working with the statistician William Farr to illustrate graphically that more British troops died of disease during the war than in battle. Farr encouraged Nightingale to compare statistics on mortality rates of civilians with that of soldiers, showing that whether at war or at home, soldiers demonstrated a higher mortality rate.  He wrote to Nightingale, “This I know…Numbers teach us whether the world is ill or well governed.”  Nightingale pioneered what is now called evidence-based healthcare and in 1858 she was the first woman elected to the Royal Statistical Society.

Chart from Florence Nightingale’s A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (London, 1859)

Chart from NYAM’s copy of Florence Nightingale’s A contribution to the sanitary history of the British army during the late war with Russia (London, 1859).

A devout woman, Nightingale saw statistics as having a spiritual aspect as well as being the most important science, and believed statistics helped us to understand God’s word. Influenced by the ethos of Victorian vital statistics, her greatest legacy can be seen in improved public health, reformed nursing education, and in her innovative polar area graphs and other work in statistics. In Nightingale, this most eminent of Victorians, we can see the combination of the two great passions of her age—a compulsion to classify and a desire to improve by reform. What made Nightingale remarkable were the personal qualities of fierce intelligence and energy that enabled her to pursue these passions with the immense determination for which she was famed.

Thank You! Festival of Medical History and the Arts Wrap-Up

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

Whew!

Our first Festival of Medical History and the Arts was a great success; more than 1,000 people attended and responded enthusiastically to our mix of talks, demos, films, etc. Now that we have had a chance to draw breath, here are a few details from the day:

It’s hard to pick highlights, although of course Dr. Oliver Sacks speaking about his intellectual influences and the patients who inspired his Awakenings was hugely exciting for all of us. We are grateful to Dr Sacks and all the speakers who came and shared their knowledge.

Our guest curators did an amazing job. Lawrence Weschler’s Wonder Cabinet started with a (big) bang, a banjo-accompanied cosmic/neuronal slapdown, and ended with fascinating insights from Riva Lehrer into how an artist’s body can affect her art and her anatomy teaching. In between, spectators had the chance to get a glimpse into the experience of having an epileptic fit; share anatomical adventures; and witness some cringe-inducing treatments suffered by monarchs through the ages.

The cosmic/neuronal smackdown.

The cosmic/neuronal smackdown. Photo by Amy Hart.

Joanna Ebenstein’s Morbid Anatomy presentation of 12(!) talks throughout the day were standing-room only, forcing us to move to a larger room, which filled up just as quickly. The day started with Mexican traditions around death, took a detour to human zoos, wax anatomical models, medical library pleasures, memento mori, and skull theft before ending with the little-discussed practice of bookbinding with human skin.

Sigrid Sarda gives a medical wax moulage demonstration.

Sigrid Sarda gives a medical wax moulage demonstration. Photo by Amy Hart.

Our conservation team prepared a wonderful exhibit of models demonstrating development of the book over time (no human skin involved), as well as a whimsical look at the life of miniature books. We put highlights from our collections on display, and welcomed visitors to our conservation laboratory. Meanwhile, visitors could learn the art of making anatomical wax moulage and see Gene Kelly struggle with combat fatigue.  And the after party cocktails and cartoons were just the things needed to wind down after the long day.

Cocktails and cartoons at the after party.

Cocktails and cartoons at the after party. Photo by Amy Hart.

With so many people, some events did fill up. Particular apologies to those who couldn’t make it on a behind-the-scenes tour. With such overwhelming demand, we’re planning to make them a much more regular feature, so if you missed out you’ll get another chance at a future event. Our two anatomical workshops were also full; for those of you in New York, we are investigating offering courses on a more regular basis, so please let us know if you are interested!

A tour of the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory. Photo by Amy Hart.

A tour of the Gladys Brooks Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory. Photo by Amy Hart.

Pictures from the day are up on our Facebook page, and winners of the caption competition and the raffle will be announced soon.  Meanwhile, keep an eye out for more details of our Performing Medicine mini-fest, coming in the spring. Hope to see you then, if not before for some of our stand-alone events!