A handwritten document signed by Maude Abbott.

Placing Women in Medicine: Maude Abbott and the Archaeology of Friendships

Annmarie Adams, Ph.D. will speak on Thursday, March 25, 2021 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Adams is a Professor in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine (Chair) and School of Architecture at McGill University, Montreal. Circulating Now interviewed her about her upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What is your typical workday like?

A woman in the lobby of the National Library of Medicine under the History of Medicine Division sign.
Annmarie Adams at NLM, October 2019
Photo by Peter Gossage

Annmarie Adams: I am an architectural historian with a special interest in buildings designed for medicine. I grew up in London, Ontario, Canada, and studied art history, architecture, and architectural history at McGill University and UC Berkeley. The Berkeley way of doing architectural history focuses on social and cultural approaches to buildings, including everyday environments, rather than on the centrality of architects. Since 1990 I’ve been a faculty member at McGill, in the School of Architecture until 2016. For the past five years I’ve had a joint appointment in the Department of Social Studies of Medicine (SSoM), as its department Chair. My new position at SSoM includes teaching an annual course on medicine and architecture to fourth-year medical students, which is a dream come true.

Photograph of a three story building.
The former J.K.L. Ross house is now the home of the Department of Social Studies of Medicine, McGill University.
Photo by Annmarie Adams

Before COVID I went to SSoM every day. The department occupies a stunning mansion built in 1909 designed by Montreal’s Maxwell firm, architects and brothers, for a prominent family. It’s nearly a perfect cube and neoclassical in its expression. Even my everyday environment—my gorgeous office is in a former guest bedroom in a third-floor corner—inspires me to think about intersections of medicine and architecture, as the house was well designed for disease prevention and the owner was a prominent hospital philanthropist.

CN: Your upcoming talk centers on Canadian physician Maude Abbott, what drew you to her story?

AA: I’m currently writing a biography of Abbott and was lucky enough in 2019 to get funding from SSHRC, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, to support the project. I was drawn to Abbott because her life story brings together many of my interests: women, medicine, archives, museums, commemoration, to name a few.  Plus, I have always been fascinated by how architecture can serve as a biographical source.

Nonetheless a lot of my work in architectural history has argued that architecture is prescriptive. Architecture tells how we ought to live. My intentions for this new book are quite different. I want to write a “spatial biography.” Rather than studying the barriers Abbott faced, I focus on the spaces she occupied. This spatial approach produces a different narrative arc that I think may be closer to what Abbott experienced. If it succeeds, this book might entice more young women in to STEM professions and medicine.

CN: What is the concept of “Friendship Archaeology” that you use in the title of your talk? How does it help you understand Dr. Abbott’s life?

AA: Networks and travel are big themes for Abbott. As I research her life, I find myself drawn to specific events, such as exhibits, trips, and celebrations. As an architectural historian I am always imagining the setting for these events. At some point last year I realized I was already engaging vocabulary from archaeology to study these place-based events: dig, site, unearth, uncover, etc. “Friendship archaeology” thus gives me an excuse to reconstruct some of the architectural settings that were key to Abbott’s world and to understand her network of friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and correspondents as layered. It lets me get really specific too.

Three pages of a printed program with an event seating list.
Maude Abbott listed as a speaker at an event honoring Dr. Libman, 1932
Emanuel Libman Papers, National Library of Medicine #9802960

Also, looking at Abbott’s life through powerful male friends illuminates her as part of that world, rather than as marginal.

CN: You spent some time here at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) with the Emanuel Libman Papers, what brought you to this collection and what did you discover here?

AA: In October 2019, my historian husband Peter Gossage and I took a week-long road trip to Philadelphia and Bethesda for me to collect material on Abbott. In retrospect, given the pandemic, the timing was fortunate! The NLM is a key archive because Emanuel Libman’s name is often mentioned in Abbott’s diaries (27 times by name, in fact) and the NLM website even lists Abbott as one of his correspondents.  When we visited, I scanned the entire Abbott file in the Emanuel Libman Papers. What I didn’t know at the time, however, is that I would eventually be focusing on Libman’s 1932 birthday celebration (one of my archaeological sites) and that some other figures in his archive would come to figure prominently in my work, such as Louis Gross. As soon as the border re-opens and travel is safe again, I must come back to consult those precious materials.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the history of medicine?

AA: My UC Berkeley PhD dissertation, supervised by Dell Upton, was on houses, women, and doctors. It came out as a book, Architecture in the Family Way, in 1996. That’s where I first started to look for intersections of medicine and architecture and also when I first started to try and “spatialize” medical expertise.  At the start of my dissertation research I only knew I wanted to study British houses as gendered space, mostly inspired by Gwendolyn Wright’s work on Chicago. Then an unthinkable thing happened. I got to the RIBA Library in London, ready to work for six months, only to find it was closed for renovations. This was 1989, pre-internet, when such information was never broadcast. Somehow I found my way to the Wellcome Library and the project became more and more medical. I have never looked back. The happenstance of the closed architecture library enriched my dissertation and my future work immeasurably.

Watch on YouTube

Annmarie Adams’ presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about NLM History Talks on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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