Space, in its place: a report on the annual meeting of the Society for the Social History of Medicine

Social historians of medicine have been especially adamant that medicine should be framed, as the title of the conference suggests, in its place. Medical knowledges could well be understood in a similar or an identical manner across geographical boundaries, but ultimately they have been influenced by the social and cultural contexts within which they were practiced.

The biennial Society for the Social History of Medicine (SSHM) conference took place at the University of Kent, 7-10 July 2016. The conference was opened by the chairman of the society Carsten Timmermann, and Julie Anderson, who organised the event with half a dozen of other postgraduate students in Kent’s history department. They made it clear that as a biennial meeting of members of the field from all over the world, the programme was kept flexible, to enable historians of medicine of diverse approaches and methodologies to present their work, even beyond social history itself. Nonetheless, the conference was officially titled Medicine in its place: situating medicine in historical contexts. The notion of place was open to different interpretations: physical and geographical places, ‘places’ of knowledge production, and the idea of a ‘social space’ as originally conceived by Henri Lefebvre. However, historians were perhaps in agreement that medicine must be understood, as stated in the title, within the social and cultural contexts in which they were practiced at the time. ‘Medicine’, often misinterpreted as a branch of western science within the popular imagination, has always been contingently constructed within its own time and space.

The clearest reflection of the theme of medicine in its place was how many of the papers discussed medicine as practiced within a specific geographical or physical space. Fabrice Cahen explored the geographically located pathology of congenital hip dislocation in provincial France, while at the transnational level Bill Leeming compared the process of institutional diffusion of prenatal diagnosis between Canada and Mexico. Kate Grauvogel’s fascinating paper discussed the renovation of an infamous mental hospital in suburban Stockholm to a modern residential area, articulating how the stigma associated with mental health was ‘contagious’ to the land even after the function of the space changed.

As an appropriate commentary on the role of ‘place’ in the construction of medical knowledge, Steve Sturdy delivered the first plenary of the event on the commercialisation of genetic testing in the second half of the twentieth century. Sturdy argued that the topic was a good case study to understand the process of the ‘medical-industrial complex’ in both Britain and the United States through the increasing penetration of private enterprise in the realm of health care. He employed the notion of ‘place’ in the often-cited shift in medical knowledge production in the late twentieth century, from one based on clinical genetics and molecular biology to that of the population-based epidemiological approach. Understandings of genetic diseases and predispositions came to be constructed primarily through the exploration of disease associations through graphs and spreadsheets, transcending the confinement of the laboratory and the hospital.

The application of the notion of ‘social space’ has been a recent development within the discipline of history. This methodology was in fact the central focus of the second plenary delivered by Graham Mooney on the relationship of ‘medical spaces’ and mobility across history. The paper explored multiple cases in which these two themes intersected, one familiar case being his exploration of the history of the hospital waiting room in twentieth century Britain. Mooney explained how the waiting area, as a sedentary space, itself potentiated the exercise of power through the ‘imposition’ of health education leaflets. Chris Millard’s paper on shifting clinical thought-styles on emotional health and child abuse in postwar Britain went beyond merely taking the hospital space for granted, exploring the debates over the impact of the spatial environment on the psychological development of newborns.

Social historians of medicine have been especially adamant that medicine should be framed, as the title of the conference suggests, in its place. Medical knowledges could well be understood in a similar or an identical manner across geographical boundaries, but ultimately they have been influenced by the social and cultural contexts within which they were practiced. On the peculiar case of the consumption of Jamaican ginger (a ‘cure-all’ patent medicine of high alcohol content) in the American South, Stephen Mawdsley framed its popularity under the prevailing culture of self-medication in the Southern and Western United States during prohibition. Jane Seymour’s paper sought to reinterpret the history of public health in interwar Britain by placing it within the political context of the interwar period itself. Seymour critiqued the traditional historiography of the period as being largely influenced by the hindsight of postwar achievements in the establishment of the NHS, arguing that public health measures during the interwar period, within their particular context, had a strong progressive initiative behind them.

Without these engaging and stimulating papers delivered by speakers on their latest research, an academic conference would be empty and meaningless. However, the SSHM conference at Kent was unusual in going beyond the traditional academic conference by having a variety of unique sessions and opportunities outside of the hundreds of research papers that were being delivered by the participants in their respective panels. There were three roundtable panel discussions by some of the leading practitioners of the field exploring the most recent developments in the profession. One of the panels, which included Lauren Kassell, Elizabeth Toon, Helen Valier, Heather Perry, and Carsten Timmermann, talked about the place of the medical historian in the university curriculum and the challenges that come from teaching the history of medicine to undergraduate students who major in STEM subjects. There were also two workshops delivered by Thomas Bray from the Wellcome Trust on grants and funding, and Emma Brennan and Tom Dark from Manchester University Press advising on how to publish a paper or a book within the current academic climate. As a postgraduate historian and an early-career researcher, I found both sessions to be highly informative and helpful. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the event is that we had an official poet and an artist representing the conference, who hosted sessions that happened parallel with the panel presentations. Dorothy Lehane ran a writing session on medicine and poetry, while Frances Stanfield explored the theme of the representations of the body by encouraging her participants to instinctively draw one another without looking directly at the paper. These sessions and workshops provided a crucial space for visitors to escape the brain fatigue that often results from a hectic schedule of academic events, allowing historians to explore health, illness, and the body beyond the confines of research papers that come one after another in most conferences.

This was the first major conference that I have attended on the history of medicine. As first conferences go, where I barely knew anyone, the organisers from the Department of History at Kent did an excellent job at creating a friendly environment. The fact that it had a large number of established scholars did not create a hierarchical atmosphere, quite unlike a lot of other important international conferences where it can be quite intimidating for an early-career researcher to feel included. Perhaps as a reflection of the relatively relaxed academic culture of the field of history of medicine, there were a plenty of informal occasions to socialise over food and drink. Large academic conferences such as these have an important function in providing a scholar with the space to interact with likeminded people, to escape from the isolation that one might feel from specialising in the history of medicine. The event was satisfying both as an arena for the exchange of knowledge and for the dozens of wonderful people that I was able to get in contact with. I am very much looking forward to the next SSHM conference.

Ryosuke Yokoe is a PhD student at the Department of History, University of Sheffield and officially affiliated with Medical Humanities Sheffield (MHS). His research concerns the twentieth century history of popular and scientific understandings of alcohol and liver disease. Follow him on twitter! @RyoYokoe1.

Thanks to Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi for the photo.