A Digital Humanities Pathway into History of Medicine

Today’s students are tomorrow’s researchers, but the confidence with which they will one day navigate their various fields takes a long time to develop. Whilst academics may understand the challenges which working in different disciplines pose them, less seems to have been said about how students may feel about this prospect.

As an undergraduate student, it can be difficult to establish all of the ideas swirling around your own field. The first two years of my English Studies degree felt like a process of acclimatisation: as well as a vast body of theory, there were new forms of criticism like journal articles and edited collections which had to be read and understood before I could start to feel properly informed. I was aware of ‘interdisciplinary research’ because my lecturers engaged in it, but it took me such a long time to feel confident with English Studies that I thought I had little chance of mastering another field.

I assumed that my final-year dissertation would be a textual analysis of the way that twins were represented in two seventeenth-century plays, The Duchess of Malfi and The Broken Heart, but then I caught sight of an image that sparked a broader interest in the History of Medicine. I was searching through EEBO (Early English Books Online), an electronic database which contains over 125,000 facsimiles of early modern texts, when I came across an illustration of twins in a seventeenth-century midwifery manual.

Images of children and twins in utero, from a 1604 edition of Eucharius Roesslin’s The birth of mankinde (Source: Wellcome Images).

Images of children and twins in utero, from a 1604 edition of Eucharius Roesslin’s The birth of mankinde (Source: Wellcome Images).

The illustration depicted two children in the womb, but what really unsettled me was how similar the twins seemed at first glance, and how different they were upon closer inspection. As I read the accompanying text, I realised that there was also a mismatch between word and image: the twins of the text never touched, but their illustrated counterparts did. I wanted to know why there was such a discrepancy, and what it meant.

I kept these questions at the back of my mind as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation, and when a suitable conference came, I started to investigate them. If I had come to the History of Medicine through a course of introductory reading, I would never have dared to submit an abstract – but because I was fascinated with the images, and could question them, I felt that I could contribute something to the discussion. The reading came later, as I prepared an article for the edited collection arising out of the conference.

One of the greatest advantages of the digital humanities for the History of Medicine, then, is its ability to make that discipline seem accessible and compelling to those outside of it. Students can be so intent on understanding their own field that they lack the confidence to participate in others. Databases such as EEBO can help to address this issue, because they allow students to directly engage with important sources. Offered such a foothold into the History of Medicine, today’s students could well find that they will return to that field when they become tomorrow’s researchers.

A number of illustrations of conjoined twins also circulated independently of midwifery manuals during the early modern period. Image of conjoined twins, from Fortunio Liceti and Gerardus Blasius’ 1655 De Monstris (Source: Wellcome Images).

A number of illustrations of conjoined twins also circulated independently of midwifery manuals during the early modern period. Image of conjoined twins, from Fortunio Liceti and Gerardus Blasius’ 1655 De Monstris (Source: Wellcome Images).

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Louise Powell

Louise Powell is in the first year of her PhD in English at Sheffield Hallam University, under the supervision of Lisa Hopkins, Todd Borlik, and Stewart Mottram. Her thesis explores the representation of twins in early modern drama from 1594-1680, and also draws heavily upon the medical, political, and religious writings of that period. It is funded by the North East Consortium for the Arts and Humanities (NECAH).

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About Louise Powell

Louise Powell is in the first year of her PhD in English at Sheffield Hallam University, under the supervision of Lisa Hopkins, Todd Borlik, and Stewart Mottram. Her thesis explores the representation of twins in early modern drama from 1594-1680, and also draws heavily upon the medical, political, and religious writings of that period. It is funded by the North East Consortium for the Arts and Humanities (NECAH).
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