History of health, medicine and naval history
Researching and writing a new book can be a solitary pursuit with long hours spent hunched over documents and books in a library or in front of a lap top. Even when the book comes out, you’ve moved on to other things, it no longer is part of you and you don’t necessarily get one to one feedback. And anyway the process of reading itself is also a solitary one. You can imagine how touched I was to receive the following email on a rather dull day and when I least expected such a communication:
“I hope you won’t be offended by my contacting you out of the blue, but … I have just begun working on a book on venereal disease …I realize that you’ve now moved on to other projects, but– since the task of writing an academic book is such a solitary one– I wanted to write to tell you how much your books on the pox have helped to inform my understanding of venereal disease in the early modern period … I don’t know whether you attend conferences in the medical humanities, or whether your current position keeps you too busy for such things (as I suspect it might), but I hope we might be able to meet at some point in the future. “
Someone actually reads me! Someone likes and appreciates what I do! I’d better not get too carried away.
But the lonely and solitary nature of researching and writing is only too true. You can only get through the work by immersing yourself in it, putting in the hard graft, the long hours and the thinking needed. Of course, there are times that you can discuss what you are doing with friends and colleagues – at the risk of boring them. But that can clarify your own thoughts and also make you think about what and how you are doing things. Some of the best ideas often come out of a bar!
Combining a research trip with a holiday, when possible and believe me it can be difficult to do so, means that you can relax in congenial company after the long hours of research are over. However, family and friends have to be understanding for this combination of business and pleasure to work. It can be even more frustrating to spend a day relaxing and having a holiday on your own than it can be to be confined to a library or archive while everyone else is enjoying themselves. Or so I am told!
Research mixed with sightseeing can be fun, though. Reading Fracastoro’s poem Syphilis in Verona, Padua and on the shores of Lake Garda, the places that he knew, was inspiring. So was the sight of a new graduate in Padua singing the student song for new graduates Dottore! as she did a strip tease in the streets. I shudder to think of what people must have thought when friends and I were going around art galleries eager to be the first to spot someone portrayed with a syphilitic nose or pustules when I was researching The Pox. I will never forget, though, when working on that book, my trip to the Städel art gallery to see Luca Giordano’s allegoric painting of Youth Tempted by the Vices. It was in storage so I had had to make an appointment to see it. Then followed a search through the cellars of the Städel trying to find this massive Baroque canvas. When it was finally located, I had to squeeze between it and another painting for a closer look at it than I would ever have desired. It didn’t help that I was mistaken for an expert on Giordano rather than a medical historian and was asked my opinion as to whether the shepherd figure, obviously representing Syphilis the shepherd in Fracastoro’s poem, in the painting is offering to the fair youth, torn between vice and virtue, a bone or penis in his mouth! A bone, if you really want to know!
Of course, you do meet a lot of interesting people in the course of your research. Archivists and librarians are usually happy to share their considerable knowledge about their own collections and offer helpful guidance and suggestions. Enthusiastic local people, generous with their time, gave me unique insights into Trieste and Gibraltar when I was researching the history of emigration for Passage to the World. I even got to know only the second Italian I have met who does not drink alcohol. And, of course, any work on twentieth century history, does involve meeting and interviewing eyewitnesses. For Penicillin Man, I was lucky enough to meet many of the people who knew Alexander Fleming and worked with him, though as time goes on inevitably there are fewer of those around. Best to get in when you can.
The same goes for buildings. I was lucky enough to be shown around Haslar Naval Hospital at Gosport, not long after it closed and before it got put to other usesBy contrast on Malta, I had to blag my way past security guards to see the scandalously derelict buildings of the still imposing if ruinous Bighi Hospital, once the pride of British naval hospitals.
And as my correspondent at the beginning of this post pointed out, conferences are good opportunities to meet people, mitigating the aloneness of the historical researcher. I do also tend, through the nature of the history of medicine or bacteriology topics I write about, to give papers at meetings devoted to science and medicine. Again you can meet a lot of interesting people and learn a lot about some very interesting subjects. I don’t know what to think when I am asked, as I regularly am, whether my background is in science or history. If people are unsure, does it mean I am bad at both?
Feedback from readers is vital. The writer is only responsible for half of the book, the other half comes from the reaction and response of the reader. So it is always good to hear from readers. Some readers also extend invitations to give talks, some of them are to universities and specialist professional groups, some to the more general interests of local history societies and women’s institutes and some can take you all over the world. Last year, for example, an invitation to give a talk in Menorca in aid of the restoration of the Isla del Reye, the very first British naval hospital on an island in Mahon harbour offered the chance to see the hospital, explore a beautiful island, give a talk and enjoy a meal with some of the audience afterwards, and have some wonderful memories such as an evening drinking Menorcan gin in a guitar bar in a cave at Es Castells. Indeed meeting new and interesting people and all sorts of different opportunities are the rewards for those hours of lonely research and writing.
Now I think about it, I don’t think the lot of the researcher and writer is that lonely after all. Quite the reverse.
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