Images and Texts in Medical History—Keynote

On April 11-13, 2016, the National Library of Medicine will host the workshop “Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanities” funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through a generous grant to Virginia Tech, and held in cooperation with Virginia Tech, The Wellcome Library and The Wellcome Trust. Seventy-Five participants and observers will gather to explore innovative methods and data sources useful for analyzing images and texts in the field of medical history. The program will include hands-on sessions with Miram Posner and Benjamin Schmidt and a public keynote address by Jeremy Greene. Today we hear from Jeremy Greene about his upcoming Keynote Address.


Informal outdoor portrait.I’m delighted to be presenting the keynote at this conference on images and text in the history of medicine.  My talk is about the opportunities and challenges that images posed to the group of clinicians, scholars and activists interested in the potential for new electronic communications technologies in medicine in the late 20th century.  In the current environment of  enthusiasm and anxiety over the role of the smartphone and the internet of things in revolutionizing biomedical knowledge, clinical practice, and medical education as we know it, there is surprisingly little attention to the many times similar claims have been made for other forms of information technology, going back to the telephone and the telegraph.  My current research project, Medicine at a Distance, is dedicated to recapturing the cyclical waves of enthusiasm for different generations of electrical communications technologies in medicine from the late 19th century to the present.  Since this conference focuses on images, I have chosen to focus this keynote, The Analog Patient: Imagining Medicine at a Distance in the Television Era  on the particular hopes and fears surrounding the incorporation of the television into medicine.My interest here is not to study the historical representation of medicine on television shows from Marcus Welby to House M.D.  Instead, I want to ask how the television became recruited as a new high-tech tool for clinical practice, medical research, and physician education, to explore how the television was briefly situated at the center of attempts to create visual networks of medical knowledge, linking providers and patients in dreams of a “wired nation” several decades before the creation of the internet. The setting is the 20 year period between 1959 and 1979, where hopes and fears for networked televisions—specifically prompted through new technological systems like satellite transmission and the cable system—became grounds for hopes and fears of a new group of technological futurists in medicine, including tele psychiatry activists in the Midwest, Picturephone promoters in the South Side of Chicago, and would be media theorists practicing at Harvard teaching hospitals.

Illustration of a doctor on the telephone (which is linked up to a television).

Potentialities of Television. “Doctor, I don’t feel well and I’d like to show you my tongue. Look!”, 1932
Courtesy Wellcome Library, London Wellcome Images #V0011546

Goals for Keynote

I think that there has been relatively little attention paid to the relationship of media, technology, and medical knowledge, and I think that this intersection is especially important for scholars who want to bring new perspectives of digital humanities to bear on the history of medicine. I hope that workshop participants interested in the applicability of the digital humanities to the field of medicine walk away from my session with a sense of the broader continuity with which humanistic dimensions of medicine have iteratively been read through available information technologies of the time.  In what ways does our present digital moment truly represent a disruptive or revolutionary moment for the fields of medical practice and humanistic scholarship?  Conversely in what ways do our hopes and fears for digital technologies represent a continuation of hopes and fears of earlier, analog technologies for the circulation of information?  The careful study of continuity and change are key analytics that historical analysis offers to the fields of medicine and to the digital humanities.

Medical History and Libraries

Libraries and archives are absolutely essential to my work.  Engagement with digital media isn’t an excuse for avoiding the library, or for allowing me to do my research without getting archive dust on my shoulders.  Although there is an understandable fear that digitization of scholarly materials might undermine the structural support for local libraries and archives, I think that well-managed digital collections can make local collections all the more visible and important and extend the ability of national and international scholars to make use of them.  In my last job at Harvard and my present job at Johns Hopkins I have had the good fortune to work with talented librarians and archivists who have extended my understanding of the nature of available collections and pushed me to think in creative ways about how to use digital modalities to enhance the use of archival resources in the classroom. I think it is key, however, that our generation of scholars helps to pass on this sensibility to future generations. I am concerned by how little contact many of my students have with librarians, let alone archivists, and there is often a tacit sensibility that the near-constant availability of digital tools makes them superior to the more selective availability of archivists and librarians.  I often find myself wondering whether there is some better means by which the extended visibility of digital resources might also help to extend the visibility of librarians and archivists as resources as well?

Images and Texts in Medical History: An Introduction to Methods, Tools, and Data from the Digital Humanitieswill be held April 11-13 in the NIH Natcher Conference Center in Bethesda, MD. Two sessions will be free and open to the public, see the full schedule here. Current information about NIH campus access and security is here. The Keynote Address on Tuesday, April 12, at 11:15 ET will be live-streamed globally and subsequently archived for future viewing, and if you are on Twitter you can follow the event @medhistimage and at #medhistws.

Read more interviews with the presenters from “Images and Texts in Medical History.

With thanks to our collaborators at Virginia Tech, Tom Ewing, Claire Gogan, and Jonathan MacDonald.