Researching care of the mentally ill during my semester-long sabbatical has shown me just how much I have overlooked the importance of teaching the history of medicine in my courses. I blogged earlier this semester about some of the web-based resources I plan to share with students in future courses (see “Making Connections: History & Medicine”). Although I teach US Women’s History every semester, discussion of health-related issues in my courses has revolved solely around the political arguments for/against birth control and abortion rights. During this sabbatical I’ve been introduced to the works of several historians who are exploring the myriad of roles that doctors and hospitals have played in the lives of women. Here are two examples of recently published research that I recommend that faculty share with US history students:
In Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology (University of Georgia 2017) historian Deirdre Cooper Owens explores the way in which black women’s bodies were used to aid the development of medical specialization. “Within the professional women’s health-care world,” Owens writes, “diseased and living black women’s bodies were...profitable. Doctors used the diseased reproductive organs of black cadavers to facilitate gynecological research and provide education in the field of gynecology.” (p. 17) White interests in preserving enslaved women’s ability to reproduce was central to these studies and played a significant role in the development of this important medical specialization. Black women, however, were exploited through this process in both life and death. According to Owens, “Although the biomedical research that nineteenth-century doctors conducted sought to locate the alleged biological differences between black and white people, white doctors used black women’s bodies in their research because they knew that women’s sexual organs and genitalia were identical to white women’s.” (p. 21) Owens’s study forced me to consider the horrifying medical/scientific components of the institution of slavery that I have often overlooked in my courses as I focus on living conditions and the labor of slaves.
Wendy Gonaver’s 2018 work The Peculiar Institution and the Making of Modern Psychiatry 1840-1880 (University of North Carolina Press 2018) documents the histories of two Virginia asylums in the 19th century with a focus on the lives of slaves, free blacks, and white women. Of particular interest to me for my general US and Women’s History classes is her discussion of domestic violence. White women who alleged domestic abuse in Virginia found themselves -- often voluntarily -- in the state’s asylums. “In a sense,” Gonaver contends, “the asylum became the paternalistic caretaker to those who had been wounded by the abuses of patriarchal power and, for a number of reasons, were unable to fend for themselves.” (p. 135) Rather than punish the abusers, therefore, women were re-victimized by surrendering their personal freedoms and control of their children in exchange for the physical protection of institutionalization.
In a typical semester I teach five courses. While valuable research is being published nearly every day, my teaching responsibilities limit the time I can dedicate to examining new content that could dramatically alter my students’ perspectives. The work of these two historians reminds me why taking the time to read new research is critical to our success as teachers. What have you read recently that will impact future iterations of your courses? Please share.