I’m a month into my research sabbatical and feeling as though the list of questions I set out to answer is only getting longer. Going into this project my plan was straightforward: learn all I can about care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and then find ways to integrate what I’ve learned into my survey US and US Women’s History courses. When I started the archival research I had no idea what stories would be uncovered but I was hopeful that the dozens of secondary sources I had already poured through would be adequate preparation for what lay ahead.
I hit a stumbling block during my very first archival visit. Reading through admission notes for female patients in the 1870s I notice that time and again doctors indicate that their female patients had recently (within weeks or months of the admission) experienced child birth. I began to wonder about postpartum depression and whether doctors in the late nineteenth century would have diagnosed such a condition. Later that evening I started back through some of the major secondary sources in search of post-childbirth diagnoses but came up empty handed.
The field of women’s history has expanded exponentially over the last forty years and yet, the more I search, the more frustrated I become: time and again searching for pre-twentieth century historical references to postpartum depression yields links to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and virtually nothing else. After combing academic databases for journal articles to no avail I posted queries to two list-servs asking fellow historians for input: what secondary sources exist to help contextualize post-childbirth mental health problems at the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth century?
It’s only a matter of hours before the first response arrives in the form of an email from a nursing professor who recommends that I contact an historian friend of hers on the faculty of a medical school. By the end of the day I’d been in touch with three historians on two continents who confirm that my inability to find secondary literature is the result of a vast empty space in the historical narrative. Historians, it seems, have been remarkably silent on the topic of postpartum depression before the Second World War and at this point I can only make broad assumptions as to why.
Historical research requires detective work: searching for clues to the past and seeking answers to questions big and small. My experience this semester is reminding me how important it is to share that research process with colleagues near and far, and to seek help when needed. Only a month into my sabbatical I am already indebted to numerous librarians, archivists and historians who have provided advice. I look forward to incurring more academic debt as my sabbatical continues.