This is Me: Curiosity, Oddity & Race on P.T. Barnum’s Stage

– by Betsy Golden Kellem*


The new Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman, a musical tour through the life and entertainment career of the entertainment icon and entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum, pivots around a corps of performers casually known as the “Oddities.” Barnum recruits these sideshow performers, rejected from polite society by reason of their unusual abilities and congenital differences, and they find community and purpose onstage in his American Museum.

Barnum’s global fame indeed did begin with the American Museum, a grand entertainment destination situated at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan, near the modern World Trade Plaza. The Museum, which traced its lineage back to the Tammany Hall cabinets of curiosities, grew under Barnum’s management into a must-see destination: a combination art gallery, dime museum, taxidermy extravaganza, aquarium, theater and menagerie, all available to visitors for a twenty-five-cent admission (children, half price). No less than the Prince of Wales considered it a required stop in New York City.

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The Importance of Nooks, Crannies, and Color in Researching National Negro Health Week

– by Paul Braff*


In 1896, statistician Frederick Hoffman confirmed what Charles Darwin and other scientists and doctors had asserted for years: African Americans were going extinct.[1] Within the context of the burgeoning professionalization of the medical field, such a conclusion had the potential to omit African Americans from medical care, especially when combined with the preconceived racial differences of the time. Indeed, white physicians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries frequently wrote African Americans off as a lost cause, categorized the race as inherently unhealthy, and refused to treat black patients or used heavy-handed tactics, such as forced vaccinations, to improve black health.

To fight this perception, in 1915 Booker T. Washington inaugurated National Negro Health Week (NNHW), a 35 year public health campaign, and the subject of my dissertation. Washington, and his successor, Robert Moton, ran the Week for its first 15 years out of Tuskegee Institute. After a brief transfer of control to Howard University, the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) decided to take over the Week in 1932. Under the leadership of Roscoe C. Brown, head of the Office of Negro Health Work, the campaign blossomed. Participation estimates increased from 475,000 in 1933 to millions by the mid-1940s as the Week became a National Negro Health Movement and increased its focus on year-round health improvement.

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Reading feces, from scatomancy to coprology

– by Wood Institute travel grantee, Guy Schaffer*


Four years ago, Kathy High and I started an artistic investigation into fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), a medical treatment in which stool from a healthy donor is used to replenish the intestinal microbes of an unhealthy patient. The treatment has been approved for a chronic bacterial infection—C. difficile—and it is currently in clinical trials for inflammatory bowel disease, as well as for illnesses that are only tangentially intestinal: depression, autism, chronic fatigue, Parkinson’s, and others.

Through this engagement with feces, we’ve become curious both about the current culture of fear and control around feces, and the kinds of hope that we see people take on when they talk about FMT. We came to the Historical Medical Library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to try to trace a genealogy of our contemporary relationship with feces. In our history of shit, we wanted to probe the annals of proctology to search for different kinds of frameworks for imagining the relationship between feces and health, in the hopes of finding new conceptual tools for exploring the future of shit.

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“Her Sex Points to Hysteria”: Diagnostic Narratives in a Student Notebook

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Lindsey Grubbs*


Hysteria posed a unique challenge to the medical profession in the late nineteenth century. As clinicians increasingly relied upon advances in instrumentation and laboratory science to diagnose organic disease, hysteria remained an enigma, mimicking organic disorder without discernable cause. S. Weir Mitchell, notorious for his work with the disorder, understood that what he once called “mysteria” was a condition with “hazy boundaries” that could not responsibly be drawn.[1] But despite this acknowledgement (or perhaps because of it), he spent much of his career attempting to delineate between organic and hysterical disorders.

Earlier this year, I spent two weeks in the Historical Medical Library researching for my dissertation the role of literature in the creation of new psychiatric diagnoses. Seeking evidence of how Mitchell employed narrative techniques as he disseminated his vision of hysteria, I spent most of my time, of course, with the Mitchell collections. His correspondence with other physicians, patients, and literary figures, his case notes, and his lecture notes demonstrated how deeply his diagnostic and literary interests supported one another. While taking a brief Mitchell-hiatus, however, I found a less glamorous set of materials that provided unexpected insight into the solidification of hysterical diagnoses in this period: the clinical notebooks of Charles P. Mercer, a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. These writings are a fascinating window into just how the diagnostic gaze was trained in Mitchell’s Philadelphia.

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Crying in the Library

– by Wood Institute travel grantee Heather Christle*


In 1906, Alvin Borgquist–a little-known graduate student at Clark University–published the world’s first in-depth psychological study of crying, and then appears to have vanished back into a quiet, private life in his native Utah.  His study is moving, strange, detached, threaded through with the racist and colonialist assumptions common to this era (and, distressingly, our own). The questionnaire he crafted to solicit data on typical crying behaviors fascinates me, forming as it does a kind of accidental poem.  Here, for instance, is Borgquist’s first question:

As a child did you ever cry till you almost lost consciousness or things seemed to change about you?  Describe a cry with utter abandon. Did it bring a sense of utter despair? Describe as fully as you can such an experience in yourself, your subjective feelings, how it grew, what caused and increased it, its physical symptoms, and all its after effects. What is wanted is a picture of a genuine and unforced fit or crisis of pure misery.[1]

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