From practice to prosopography

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By | Early Medicine

L0040881 Two men dissecting a body with plague. Engraving from Loimotomia, or, The pest anatomized : an historical account of the dissection of a pestilential body by the author. Together with the author’s apology against the calumnies of the Galenists, and a word to Mr. Nath. Hodges, concerning his late Vindiciae medicinae … George Thomson Published: 1666

This month the Wellcome Library hosted the first in a new series of academic seminars on the history of pre-modern medicine. The series has been organised by a group of historians of medicine based at London universities and will focus on pre-twentieth century, European and non-european, history. The title of this first seminar, Understanding Medical Practice in Early Modern England: biography and prosopography, piqued my curiosity – so I went along to find out more.

I should say at this point that I am not a historian, nor am I from a medical background. I didn’t even know what ‘prosopography’ was when I arrived at the seminar. But I was curious. And I was not disappointed. Prof Jonathan Barry and Dr Peter Elmer gave a fascinating introduction to their research, in particular their plans to create, over the course of the next five years, a unique database cataloguing the medical practitioners of early modern England, Wales and Ireland.

The project had its innocuous beginnings when Peter Elmer, as a young researcher, took to jotting down the names of medical practitioners as he came across them in early modern texts. This early interest evolved over the years, until Elmer decided to compile a database of names from the notes he had made. He has already collected over 18,000 names.

Now, along with Jonathan Barry, who has received a Medical History and Humanities Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust, he is about to embark on an ambitious project to produce a survey of all medical practitioners active in England, Wales and Ireland in the period between 1500 and 1715.  This will be the foundation for the first broad study of the nature and impact of medical practice in England during this period.

A physician examining a urine specimen with book and chemical apparatus. Wellcome Images V0016084

Peter Elmer gave us a taste of the kind of insights this study could provide, as he presented his research into the ill-fated Society of Chemical Physicians, which in 1665 sought to usurp the London College of Physicians from their powerful position at the centre of English medicine. Elmer is investigating the motivation behind the formation of the society and the political machinations of its influential supporters. His research is just one example of what could be achieved with this new resource. As Jonathan Barry said, “the potential is vast”.

But then so is the task facing the two men and their team. A project of this scale is not without its challenges. Not least the all-important question of how to limit the survey, both temporally and geographically. Barry spoke of the difficulty of finding a convenient historical marker in English history with which to conclude the survey. Would it be best to end with the civil war? Or perhaps the revolution of 1688? The pair admitted that they decided to exclude Scotland from the survey in part because it would simply have been too much work to include it. Many of the questions posed by the audience also revolved around the scope of the project – would it include midwives? Nurses? Hospitals? The trade and distribution of medicines?

At the end of the seminar, Elmer seemed a little amazed by the scale and potential of his own handiwork – the audience having enthusiastically suggested an array of different ways that the project could be extended. Luckily, he and Barry are not working alone. As well as having an enthusiastic team at Exeter, the two plan for the database to become a shared resource for the research community, a “setting in which people can share information”. They hope also to encourage collaboration between researchers in the field – this engaging seminar certainly seemed to me to be a step in the right direction.

And prosopography? Well, the online Oxford English Dictionary tells me its the study of the “public careers and relationships of a group in a particular place and period”.  In the not too distant future then, looking online for the “public careers and relationships” of early modern English medical practitioners will be made possible through Barry and Elmer’s project.

Author: Holly Story, Wellcome Trust graduate trainee

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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