All posts tagged: history of medicine

The Dietary Innovation & Disease Conference: A Debrief

Last week, I presented at a history of nutrition conference that took place on San Servolo, a small island about a ten minute boat ride off of Venice that for more than two hundred years housed an asylum. San Servolo proved a most fitting and inspiring setting for the Dietary Innovation and Disease in the 19th and 20th Centuries conference. We heard the lapping waters of the Venice lagoon, felt its cool breezes, and even saw a cruise ship or two pass by, all while listening to thought-provoking paper presentations at an academic conference. Co-organized by David Gentilcore and Matthew Smith, the well-executed event brought together thirty scholars from across the world, all working to unpack today’s nutrition issues through the study of dietary innovation and health in the past. As for me, I presented some of my new work on Fairlife milk, an “ultra-filtered” lactose-free milk with more protein and calcium and less sugar than “ordinary milk,” that just so happens to be distributed by Coca-Cola. Fairlife is a textbook example of what Gyorgy Scrinis calls “functional nutritionism,” in which the food industry seeks …

CHAViC 2015: An Insane Asylum, on a Dinner Plate?

Five glorious days musing over fascinating eighteenth and nineteenth-century objects and texts, multiple delectable meals (including one cooked over the hearth at Old Sturbridge Village!), stimulating conversation, and umpteen new friendships and professional food studies connections. All this was the result of my incredible experience at the American Antiquarian Society in the Center for Historic American Visual Culture (CHAViC) seminar, “Culinary Culture: The Politics of American Foodways, 1765-1900,” which was organized and orchestrated by Nan Wolverton, CHAViC Director, and led by Nancy Siegel, Professor of Art History, Towson University. The week’s lectures, material, and discussions were oriented around a case study assignment, in which each student chose one of seven artifacts/objects/ephemera (pictured below) to discuss in greater detail. With such exciting options, we all agonized over which object to choose and spent the week working through questions grounded in the lives of the objects themselves, like: Where did it come from? Who held it, used it, or owned it? Where did it live? Was it meant to be private or public? Why was it made? What is its message? What does it tell …

Typhoid Mary: Public Health Menace or Plucky Bad Ass?

While many may have heard of “Typhoid Mary” (I’m speaking here of the public health historical figure not either of the hard rock bands that bear her name nor the mutant Marvel villain inspired by her plight), fewer know the complete story of Mary Mallon, the immigrant cook incarcerated in isolation for a quarter century for unknowingly spreading typhoid through her cooking. When one hears the name “Typhoid Mary,” the mind often conjures images of some untamable shrew dishing out ladles full of infected slop, a mental picture not unlike the one that the press created in 1909, in which Mallon is depicted cracking skulls into a skillet, while venomous vapors drift downward from her mouth. Often told with a reductionist focus in science textbooks, Judith Walzer Leavitt’s social history, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public Health (1997), sets Mallon’s story straight. While viewed as a menace by the New York public health department, the legal system, media, and general public, Mary Mallon was also a powerfully plucky bad ass, who despite institutional entities against her, little …

‘Graduate School Will Kill You’ and Other 18th Century Health Advice for the Studious

Before I began my doctoral studies, I worked for five years in the field of worksite wellness, an experience that made me painfully aware of the growing evidence that sedentarism—spending too many hours sitting on one’s glorious behind—has deleterious health effects. Unfortunately, as a striving academic, I often find myself seated squarely on my rear for what sometimes feels like endless amounts of time. While many a modern day inforgraphic can summarize how sitting may be killing us, William Buchan, MD’s domestic medicine manual, Domestic Medicine Or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases By Regimen and Simple Medicines (1772, second edition) provides period recommendations for the studious, which I found entertaining, enlightening, affirming, and worrisome in equal measure.[1] Many of Buchan’s recommendations ring as true today as they did nearly 250 years ago. Buchan writes: Intense thinking is so destructive to health, that few instances can be produced of studious persons who are strong and healthy, or live to an extremely old age. Hard study always implies a sedentary life; and, when intense thinking is joined to …

Presidential Obesity: Taft, Bathtubs, and the Medicalization of Corpulence

Ask your average citizen what he or she knows about President William Howard Taft and you’ll most likely hear recanted the rumor that due to his girth, Taft once became stuck in the White House bathtub. In the article, “Corpulence and Correspondence: President William H. Taft and the Medical Management of Obesity,” Providence College’s Deborah Levine analyzes fascinating primary sources from the Library of Congress—letters in which the 27th president of the United States corresponded with Dr. Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies, an English diet expert—that chronicle Taft’s efforts to lose weight while in the harsh spotlight of American politics and popular culture. [If you haven’t read Monday’s New York Times coverage or the original article in the most recent issue of Annals of Internal Medicine, they’re marvelous. Go read them now!] As Levine demonstrates, this correspondence reveals Taft’s own views of the relationship between obesity and personal character, as he aspired to lose weight not only “to combat uncomfortable symptoms” (565), but also to “become a better civil servant” (565), revealing the assumption that one’s weight informs both objectives. This perspective is reinforced …