The huge variety of the material culture of medicine in the early modern period was brought before us in two presentations by Dr Christelle Rabier (Economic History Department, LSE) and Dr Simon Chaplin (Head of the Wellcome Library, London). You can read the tweets here and listen to the podcast here.
Dr Rabier’s presentation, which acted as a tantalising taster for an upcoming special edition of the journal Technology and Culture, swept us through the bewildering array of products available to medical consumers in the early modern period, from innovative drugs like quinquina, to surgical tools and anatomical models, to Dr Rabier’s special area of interest, the trusses used to manage hernias between the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Musing on the idea of 1800 as a turning point for medical consumption, Dr Rabier was concerned with the social and cultural ‘lives’ of these medical technologies, as explored though the case study of the truss. Materiality, exchange and meaning (what makes a thing medical?) are the themes that shaped her presentation, which culminated in a discussion based on the rich collection of sources on the eighteenth-century French truss manufacturer William Blakey, whose correspondence reveals the subtleties of the trade in these briefly ubiquitous things, which have now disappeared from the ‘medical marketplace’ at the end of the early modern period. Dr Rabier showed us how the manufacturer advertised his services to the patient/patron, who then took an active role not only as a consumer, but as a designer, assessor and even co-manufacturer of the product, which we may speculate, would go on to have an extended life in the second hand market.
Dr Chaplin’s paper took us from these materials for the body, to a very different kind of medical thing; anatomical specimens made from the body. In contrast to Dr Rabier’s actively traded goods, Dr Chaplin discussed how these specimens were rendered near-worthless on the open market, when one considers the huge cost in both materials (pigments, alcohol, flint glass and the bodies themselves) and skilled labour required to produce them. We learnt of the remarkably low prices recorded from the auction of collections, including one instance where jars filled with prepared specimens were sold for a lower price than similar jars fetched when empty. Where then lay the value in these items? Dr Chaplin explored the anatomist John Hunter’s collection in the context of his contemporary and acquaintance Adam Smith’s definition of value, and outlined the rhetorical role of value. He showed us the role that the labour expended in amassing such collections played in the construction of symbolic ‘value’ for the items, and how the Hunterian collection was purchased because of it’s resulting perceived ‘value’ to the nation.
The lively discussion which concluded the session highlighted the links between the two papers, and centred around the themes of value, of selling, and of collection, as we considered questions that ranged from the commodification of spas and spa waters, the uses of anatomical specimens outside the academy, and a return to the theme of the labour involved in the production of a thing as Dr Chaplin mused on the transformation of a body into a piece of property through the preparation process. Overall, the consideration of two very different categories of object highlighted uneasy tension around things in the ‘medical marketplace’ of the early modern period where public good and private profit jostled uncomfortably against one another.