Digital Tools for Teaching Early Medicine to a New Generation: Part 1

At this year’s AAHM annual meeting in Columbus, OH, Emily Clark, Kathleen Crowther, Elaine Leong, and Lisa Smith convened a lunchtime panel to talk about using new digital tools to teach undergraduates early medicine. This post, the first in a series of four, will cover one of the methods discussed.

Visualization with Voyant and the Reading Early Medicine Website

Emily J. Clark

The Reading Early Medicine, or REM, website and database aims to engage students, teachers, and researchers with early medicine in its varied and rich forms, and to facilitate their interactions with printed sources. It is a comprehensive bibliographic database of works about health and healing (defined broadly)  published in English from the dawn of print to 1700, with additional resources to help students and researchers find and interpret texts of interest to them. Bibliographic data on over 2,500 printed works can be searched with key-terms, author names, booksellers, printers, and more. Searchable data include additional categories coded by the project team, such as genre, topic, and the advertised occupation of an author of the work. Such occupational titles were claims to authority over the body and health—writers variously describe themselves as “Masters of the Art,” “Doctors of Physick,” “occultists,” “doctor’s wives,” “gentlemen,” “chirurgeons” and more. Genres and topics include deliberately anachronistic search terms like “reproduction” that can help novice students find texts.

REM continues to add syllabi, classroom exercises, and peer-reviewed context essays to the site to support teaching on early-modern health and healing. Strong student work— brief biographical essays, for example—will be included on the site to deepen the knowledge base, acknowledge students’ research, and build interest in the subject.

REM includes a suite of visualization tools, including Platin to create histograms; Voyant for text mining; and for network visualizations, with step-by-step instructions for each. Voyant creates word clouds that instructors and students can use to reveal trends in any given genre of early modern print. Take this example, drawn from the titles of printed works under the topic of “Beauty and Cosmetic” from the REM database.

Word cloud generated from the “Beauty and Cosmetic” topic in the REM database

Visualizing this data with the Voyant word cloud fosters discussions about the place of gender in early modern print and healing practices; it can also complicate the ways we might think of beauty and medicine. As this word cloud makes clear, beauty and cosmetic manuals were as much about practices that we think of as “medical” (surgery, physick, apothecary, experimentation) as they were “non-medical” (beauty, cooking, youth). The largest words in the cloud indicate those which appear most frequently in the titles of beauty manuals— “physick,” closely followed by “preserving” and “candying.” Care of the exterior of the body—including skin, hair, and nails—through washing and beautifying were important aspects of early modern medicine, or physick. The means used to care for the body, in terms of both illness and cosmetics, often called for tools and procedures found in early modern kitchens. Similarly, we see the importance of qualities like experience, secrecy, and trustworthiness to early modern readers when it came to cosmetics and the body. The authors of these manuals touted their authority in terms of class or social standing (as words like “countesse,” “gentlewoman,” and “honorable” demonstrate). Word clouds such as these promote discussions about the intended users of such books, the nature of domestic healing, the importance of secrecy, and a host of other topics.

Emily J. Clark is a PhD candidate in the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. She studies the history of the body, with a particular focus on sexuality, race, and reproduction in the early modern Atlantic world. Her dissertation explores the everyday experiences of sex, intimacy, and labor among poor, servant, and enslaved women in colonial New England.

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