CaHRU/LIH Improvement Science and Research Methods Seminar September 2019: Using documentary analysis to understand self-diagnosis amongst natural philosophers and physicians

The research seminar from the Community and Health Research Unit and the Lincoln Institute for Health was given by Professor Anna Marie Roos, Professor of the History of Science and Medicine from the School of History and Heritage. The seminar took place on Tuesday 17th September at the Sarah Swift Building and was well attended by staff and students.

The seminar, titled ‘Using documentary analysis to understand self-diagnosis amongst natural philosophers and physicians, illustrated the use of documentary analysis and its subject matter and was based on ‘Treating yourself: self-diagnosis amongst natural philosophers and physicians and the early modern medical case study’ (published in: Testimonies: states of mind and states of the body in the early modern period. Springer, New York). To test the parameters of the extent to which bodily health, bodily pain and the development of a uniquely scientific understanding of nature were experienced and expressed, Prof Roos analysed three cases where early modern English physicians and natural philosophers made a diagnosis. In these cases of John Wilkins (1614-72), Martin Lister (1639-1712), and John Ray (1627-1705), their descriptions and diagnoses were of their own illnesses, their descriptions were not in a published treatise, but in private correspondence.

As their own bodies were a dataset, examining their letters elucidates where datasets and mindsets met in the seventeenth century. On the one hand, Wilkins, Lister, and Ray displayed clinical detachment and a high level of empirical detail about their own suffering. They were their own experimental subjects. On the other hand, they expressed emotional despair along with data presented, and their own pain was pre-Cartesian, a broken state of nature. Prof Roos argued that the private nature of their correspondence made these sources problematic for analyses of public scientific practice, but in the case of Lister, his medical case was published anonymously in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and reprinted in his Letters and Mixt Discourses. This approach helped to elucidate norms for formulation and publication of early modern medical and scientific case studies and was a good illustration of how similar approaches can be used in current documentary analyses.

Prof Niro Siriwardena

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