Seminar: Landscapes of American Medicine

Seminar Description:

Seminar: Landscapes of American Medicine

The nineteenth century saw American medicine transformed from a balkanized discipline whose disparate sects were unified only in a mutual reliance on neohippocratic theories of disease (theories that were themselves little changed since classical antiquity) into a far more confident profession that increasingly defined itself by scientific knowledge produced in the spaces of clinics, laboratories, and epidemiological fields. This course examines these and other developments in a ‘long nineteenth century’ by emphasizing themes of place, space, and geography across the many ‘landscapes’ of American medicine.

The course opens with consideration of several internal landscapes of American medicine during the late colonial era and the early republic; these include: the perceived effects of New World environments and climates on the humoral constitutions of European and African bodies; the therapeutic traditions inspired by American flora; and the professional and commercial networks that emerged to serve the medical marketplace of the young nation. Among the guiding questions of these opening sessions will be: Was there ever such a thing as a uniquely ‘American’ medicine? How might one speak of ‘American exceptionalism’ in the context of the nation’s medical culture, and how have developments in medical theory, therapeutics, education, and the medical marketplace over the last two hundred years redefined this exceptionalism?

The course next considers the influences of external landscapes on American medical culture in the mid-to-late nineteenth century; these include: the role of the Paris clinic in the training and professional identity of American physicians; the development of English sanitation ideas and practices and their application to burgeoning American urban environments; and the organization of German laboratories in the late nineteenth century and their transition into the United States through higher education and industry. Questions pursued in the middle third of the course will include: How did the emergence of specific sciences and the idea (and even veneration) of scientific knowledge more generally work to shape medical training and professional culture in the United States? How true is it to speak of national cultures of medical science in the nineteenth century, or conversely, how international was science at the time?

The final third of the course will analyze the development of the social landscapes of medical institutions and medical conventions in settings ranging from slave plantations, the asylum, the hospital, the medical school, and a growing number of overseas American territories. It is here that students will engage most explicitly questions and historical methods of race, sexual identity, gender, religion, ethnicity and nationality, and social class. This portion of the course will examine how the emergence and evolution of medical relationships served at times to identify, control, and strengthen differing communities of people. Specifically, students will analyze the organizing spatial components (the ‘social landscapes’) of these relationships; for instance: the practice of medicine on slave plantations and the medical traditions of enslaved peoples; the missions of Catholic and Jewish hospitals and their importance to the immigrant communities and physicians they served; the organization of medical schools by blacks and women; the establishment of asylums to define, govern, and treat illnesses of the mind; and the social evolution of communities centered on ideas of sexuality in the wake of the medicalization of same-sex desire.

Through this organizing framework of ‘landscapes,’ students will take from this course thorough understanding of major issues and events influencing the development of medicine in the United States from the colonial era to the Great War. They will have a firm command of changes over time in scientific fields of morbid anatomy, physiology, therapeutics, pathology, disease etiology and epidemiology, and public health.