I just finished reading the contributions in Devices and Designs: Medical Technologies in Historical Perspective, collected by Julie Anderson and Carsten Timmermann, both at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester. The articles present very interesting and carefully researched case stories, that testify to the continuing relevance and appeal of a technological perspective in the history of medicine.

I found the title slightly misleading, however. There is much text but very little materiality in the devices under study, and equally little consideration of their morphology or the aesthetics of design. Anderson and Timmermann are well aware of this, and they regret not having been able to present chapters that “illustrate the challenge of ‘reading’ non-textual sources” (p. 7).

This challenge is certainly a very real one. But the editors’ remark made me wonder whether identifying the challenge as one of making instruments and machines legible carries the risk of missing other important aspects of the role played by medical technologies, both in the clinic and in the laboratory. In these sites, technical equipment is felt, heard, smelt, and lived with, and imposes themselves on people in other ways than narrative and functional. This was very much the point made by Jan Eric Olsén and Thomas Söderqvist at last weeks Artefacts XII meeting in Oslo. And when studying the history and culture of medicine, or when collecting the recent biomedical heritage for museum collections, we should try to take this into account.

The problem, obviously, is how to do this. How are practices, bodily experiences, and embodiments brought in, either as objects of research or as museum objects? Tilly Tansey of The Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL, the driving force behind the invaluable series of witness seminars conducted by The History of Twentieth Century Medicine Group, is giving a talk at CHSTM in November on Busy Hands, Hidden Voices: Oral Histories of Medical Laboratory Technicians, which may point to possible ways forward.

Still, what is usually hidden about the manual work being performed in laboratories or elsewhere cannot necessarily be understood as a voice, and thereby as something that fits more easily with the historian’s idea of sources or of museum objects. But perhaps the oral (and eventually written) representation of a somatic experience is as close as we will get. Is there a way beyond representationalism if we wish to collect the aesthetic, somatic, and non-narrative aspects of medical tehnology?

Share →