Whether or not you have snow on the ground, the month of February is often one for hunkering down and preparing the emotional, intellectual, and creative ground for future generative activities. Need something to keep your hands occupied while you let your mind wander? You are in luck! This is #ColorOurCollections week, a “special collections coloring fest” across social media platforms, organized by the New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for History.
Medicine is not practiced in a vacuum; cultural and geographical context matter, and the community shapes both innovation and practice. Cleveland’s history reveals the remarkable collaboration of medical institutions and the public—it does not rest only in the hands of physicians or with distant hospital systems. Now, as then, health is everyone’s concern. But how do we engage the public? And how can we make it plain that the public has rights–and power–to shape medicine? Historically, individuals had a greater share in shaping their care out of necessity. The Dittrick Museum’s collection of herbals and medical remedies is a testament to just how much people took health into their own hands. Dr. Culpepper’s Last Legacy (1655) contains prescriptions for do-it-yourself potions [from our instagram]: Obviously, we are not mixing witches’ brew these days, and certainly no doctor or pharmaceutical company is going to publish recipes for homemade medicine. Then again, a resurgence in homeopathy and plenty of websites that promote home-remedies suggest that there is an audience…And a quick scan reveals plenty of misinformation, too. How can an interested public find good information about their health and health choices? Whose responsibility is it to make access to care, and even information about care, easier and more intuitive? The patient often does not feel like an empowered part of the medical process. A few years ago, The Atlantic published a piece called “Power to the Patients” that took issue with the traditional doctor knows best mantra: “it is only by empowering patients – entrusting them with greater responsibility and putting opportunities for self-directed care into their hands – that health care can be made significantly more efficient and effective.”  But, the article goes on to admit, sorting out how you can be empowered in the midst of a health crisis is probably too late. Let’s take it a step further: do healthy people feel empowered about their health? Do they understand that they are stake-holders? Possibly not. The New York Academy of Medicine is taking a community approach to this problem. They have a renewed dedication to “urban health,” and seek to address the broader determinants of health, and “the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to care.” Their new logo sports the phrase: Healthy Cities. Better Lives. It’s not a new idea. It’s a return to an old idea–one that thrived in cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Cleveland, Ohio, is one brilliant example. Polio hit urban centers hard, leaving debilitated children in its wake. The iron lung could keep people alive, but the world needed a vaccine, and then a systematic way of implementing vaccination protocols. A combined effort of doctors, philanthropists, the media, and everyday people led to record-breaking changes. Salk’s vaccine dropped cases by 90% by 1962 in Cleveland, and led to the eradication of the disease in the rest of the US. Public awareness and empowerment did what laboratory medicine could never hope to achieve on its own. Community engagement, public empowerment, and (key in the polio crisis) access to care and information wins the day. And that returns us to the first question. How do we engage and educate the public? Whose job is it?
The short answer: it’s everyone’s job. But I want to take a moment and focus on the power of history. Museums and libraries–and institutions generally–have an important role to play. To address misunderstandings about medicine, and crucially about who controls or drives innovation, the Dittrick has developed an interactive, digital exhibit and attendant programming called How Medicine Became Modern. The exhibit will be a free-standing digital touch-screen wall, 10ft x 4ft, in the main gallery, providing the story of our shared medical past and cultivating means of seeing the relationships among culture, society, and health. But we have also begun two types of public outreach as well–“conversations” that begin with the history, then allow panels and round tables to discuss medicine today. The story of polio and others like it remind us: we are part of this story. History records more than the names of famous doctors. It demonstrates the innovation, the boldness, the concern, and the action of every day citizens. Medical humanities, or health and humanities, is all about the human story at the core. Let’s work together to bring that story out, and to be part of it.  Clayton M. Christensen and Jason Hwang. “Power to the Patients” The Atlantic 2009
I work at the Dittrick Medical History Center and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. If you’re not familiar, you may want to check out the instagram feed–because that really will give you a sense of the breath and depth. But hey, why not a few teaser images:
Medical Museums have a tendency to be grouped into the category of the macabre, likened to cabinets of curiosities, rather than understood in the broader concept of museums generally. There is nothing at all wrong with that designation, but like natural history museums and art museums, the Dittrick medical museum tells a story about the human condition (in this case, often the human medical condition) in the face of technology. That story is as varied as it is fascinating: after all, being sick in 1810 and being sick in 1910 were rather different experiences!
The Dittrick collection contains about 150,000 artifacts, plus rare books and ephemera. What does an amputation set look like? Why and how was blood-letting used? How about the first tech of germ theory–or the first x-rays? Disease prevention, diagnostics, reproduction and contraception, even forensics: the Dittrick museum tells the human story behind the medical technology (including the ethics–or not–of treatment procedures). Our programming follows suit, and in fact, this coming Thursday we are presenting our annual (free) lecture on contraception history. Deanna Day will discuss thermometers and contraception, the contested ways in which women historically attempted to control their fertility. A week from Thursday and Sachiko Kusukawa from Trinity College, Cambridge University will discuss Vesalius, anatomy, and the Fabric of the Human Body.
How do we build community? What makes it possible?
The Medical Humanities, operating at the intersection of fields, aims to bring diverse perspectives together. But that isn’t as easy as it sounds. In the mad tumult and breakneck pace at which we presently live, it’s increasingly difficult to be heard–though we are less like voices crying in a wilderness and more like people shouting at a hurricane. Carving out space for truly meaningful engagement is tricky business, and today I am going to liken it to a similar issue faced by museums and libraries.
For the past year, the Dittrick Medical History Center has hosted a medical humanities reading group. Housed in the Allen Memorial Medical Library, we provide a beautiful building and a practical space–but also much more. Our historical collections are diverse
and fascinating (500 year old ivory anatomy models, Beck’s defibrillator, Vesalius’s Fabric of the Human Body), but any curator will tell you, objects simply do not speak for themselves. Museums, libraries, and other cultural spaces must do more; we must build a relationship between history and humanities–we need supportive communities.
And those communities need us, too. One thing that has become increasingly clear to me since leaving the usual tenure track appointment for academics in favor of museum work is that a real hunger exists for alternatives and intersections. The usual routes–be they for degrees, careers, interest, investment, and engagement–don’t always satisfy. Hybridity and interdisciplinarity garner a lot of press, but how can we put such things truly into practice? One way is to form alliances between the medical humanities and medical museums like the Dittrick. We believe in the value of such communities, and want to make them an integral part of all we do. Here’s a look at how we’ve made those inroads.
To build–and so to provide–a robust inter-disciplinary community, the Dittrick Museum has focused on membership, exhibit engagement, social media presence, and event planning. That means welcoming those beyond the walls to join us in new ways. This past September, we hosted a book talk by Kate Manning (author of My Notorious Life), packing the Zverina roomfor a talk about women’s issues, women’s health, contraception, history, and fiction. Kate signed books, gave a reading, and talked about the value of museum collections for her work. A link to the talk appears here; as Kate said, “here at the museum, I am surrounded by the things I once only imagined.” We’re also hosting a “mystery at the museum” night, as well as our other annual lectures, talks, and receptions.
Of course, to bring in a public is only part of the process; we want those who visit to feel part of what we do. We want and need vibrant and engaged people to help us bring the humanities and medicine to the wider public. As a result, we’ve also begun to offer things like the Explorations talks for our members, interesting and behind the scenes chats about the museum or about history and the humanities more generally. We are also hosting a trolley tour of the Lakeview Cemetery the day after Halloween; many medical luminaries are buried there and it provides an interesting way to get the “dirt” on local history. These events are free to our members (see how to join), a fee for non members, but the point is this: Provide a narrative, the story of our shared medical past. Provide a space and also a reason to see the relationships among culture, society, health, gender, and more. To engage with the human side of medicine has always been one of the goals of medical humanities; to engage with the human at the interstices of culture, history, medicine and the humanities is also the goal of many a medical and scientific museum.
And so, with our continued programs and projects–and a robust online platform (twitter, instagram, web, and blog), the Dittrick museum has sought to be a center for outreach and engagement. It has been our pleasure to host the medical humanities reading group and we welcome other like-minded affiliations. Join us. Be part of our community. Let’s make history.
[Images by Frank Lanza]