Historical Hypochondria

I have begun to wonder if historians, or at least history students, don’t suffer from a similar problem to that experienced by medical students. Medical students often start to self-diagnose with various ailments during the course of their studies, especially when confronted with list after list of symptoms. They find themselves ticking off symptoms and suddenly thinking they have this or that strange disorder. (( But never lupus ))

Sometimes as I am reading about historical groups or events, I find myself thinking “Gee, that’s awfully similar to X or Y.” Occasionally these are happy similarites, but often they are not. This semester I’m taking a course on the South since 1865, with an emphasis on race and gender, which means I’m reading accounts of voter suppression and white supremacists’ efforts to control the public lives of women, white and black.

Continue reading “Historical Hypochondria”

QuickPost: Citations

I recently finished reading The Anatomy Murders by Lisa Rosner. It’s a very readable look at the early 19th century Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare, offering a great deal of context both for the Edinburgh they inhabited and the culture of medical anatomy which motivated them. I may write more on it later.

What intrigued me was the citation style. There were no footnotes or endnotes, but in the back was a section for notes, with text in bold indicating what sentence or paragraph was being supported. At first I was a bit irritated, as it made it impossible to tell while in the main text whether she was working from a source. Then I realized that I, and I imagine others, have a tendency to thing “Oh, a foot/end note. This must be based in a reliable source,” which is decidedly not always the case.

I recently tried to find the source of a quotation only to be sent from one citation to another, backwards through publications until I got to the point where there were no foot or end notes, only a bibliography. I’m learning not to trust a notation so blindly.

Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell

I signed up to  blog for Finding Ada’s day of ” day of blogging (videologging, podcasting, comic drawing etc.!) to draw attention to the achievements of women in technology and science.” And then I thought “wait, who will I write about?”

After all, I’m a geeky artist born to geeky artists. As much as I really enjoyed most of my science classes as a kid, I don’t know about that many historical scientists – and of course most of the ones I do know are men. I considered writing about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and how she tried to bring the Ottoman smallpox inoculations to England, of how 1930s movie beauty Heddy Lamarr was also a brilliant engineer, but neither of those felt quite on.

Then it hit me! Maria Mitchell!

Although in her time she may have been one of world’s most famous natural scientists, most people today do not know who she was. In fact, I wouldn’t know who she was if I hadn’t gone to Vassar College, where she taught astronomy in the late 19th century. Maria Mitchell was an awesome woman, and I mean that more in the traditional sense than the “Bill & Ted” one. She was an astronomer, a teacher, and an advocate for women’s rights.  Continue reading “Ada Lovelace Day: Maria Mitchell”

Important Lessons in History

In some ways, being a historian is like being a detective. Yet, where Sherlock Holmes (and his real-life counterparts) could look at many disparate clues and say “this is what must have happened!” This is not how history works. A murderer or robber will probably have one motive, but historical events are the result of many different factors, each important in their own way. I still remember the day I really learned that this is so.

First semester sophomore year. I was a freshly declared history major, taking “Colonial America, 1500-1750,” taught by the department chair. That day in class we were set to talk about the Salem Witch Trials, and I was so excited because over the summer I had seen an episode of Secrets of the Dead which that explained the strange behavior of the animals and humans were likely the symptoms of ergot poisoning. The professor gave a short lecture on the basic facts, and opened up the discussion.

With all the enthusiasm and pride of a college student with newly acquired information, I explained the ergot theory. The professor listened, and acknowledged that he had heard the theory and it did explain some of the odd physical behaviors. But, he said, it did not explain why certain people were accused of witchcraft.

The discussion went on as I sat there, my ego a little bruised but rightly so. By the time class was over, I had begun to get what he was saying, and I definitely understood it by the end of the semester. People are complex; society, being made up of people, is also complex.

Ergot poisoning may have led to behavior in animals and humans which was perceived as witchcraft. Established social relationships in the community contributed to who was suspected of being a witch. Legal systems which gave a succesfull identifier of a witch monetary gain motivated accusations.

Each aspect of the history of Salem, Mass., at the time of the trials is important, but individually, they’re just a thread. It is not until you start to put them all together that you get the woven piece, the portion of the tapestry of history which tells the whole story. There are many threads in the tapestry of history, and the good historian tries to see them all.

Quote on History

“Human nature is the same in every age if we make allowance for the difference of customs & Education, so that we learn to know ourselves by studying the opinions and passions of others”
-William Bradford (paraphrasing Hume) in a letter to James Madison, October [1772], original in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Transcription from William T. Hutchinson & William M. E. Rachal, eds. Papers of James Madison, vol 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press , 1962), 73.