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Melissa Grafe's blog

Delightful Delusions: A reflection on Jan Van de Velde’s “The Quack: Populus vult decipi” (1615-1641)

5 December 2013 - 9:57pm by Melissa Grafe

 We have a secret!  Blog post on an item in the Books of Secrets exhibit, by student curator Jarrell Ng          Something that has both puzzled and fascinated me throughout this course is how the professors of secrets and their books became so authoritative even though many of their recipes were fantastical, and probably never worked. The charlatans especially - as depicted in Jan van de Velde’s print “The Quack: Populus vult decipi” (1603-1641) - were blatant in their fraudulence, performing songs, comedy and cheap carnival tricks to attract crowds, “appropria[ting] recipes from earlier books of secrets”[1], and of course fabricating secrets of their own. How could people have been so enthralled by such falsities, and why was such a market of lies so sustainable?            A common narrative advanced is that the theatricality of their displays - “the mountebanks put on a slapstick comedy, using the characters, devices and gigs of what would later be called the commedia dell’arte”[2] - made the ciarlatania beloved source of entertainment for European publics. Sure, this may account for their popularity, but it fails to explain why people took the further step of actually spending moneyto purchase their phony remedies. Van de Velde’s print seems to acknowledge this; it de-emphasizes the theatricality of the charlatan’s display - he stands back with his arms on his waist, allowing his nostrums to speak for themselves - subtly hinting at the possibility that people were actually drawn to the mountebank’s secrets themselves, and not just beguiled by his diversions.            Perhaps then, those who purchased these false secrets were simply gullible; naive or desperate enough to be convinced of their authenticity. Yet, given the farcical methods that charlatans used to ‘prove’ their remedies, to merely conclude that all their customers were foolish seems unsatisfying. Even the professors of secrets, who made a more deliberate effort to establish legitimacy than the ciaralatani- and were therefore less obviously unreliable - should, conceivably, have lost their credibility once people tested out the recipes in their books and discovered that many were ineffective. Thus, unless one believes that European publics at the time were truly that half-witted, gullibility offers a painfully inadequate explanation for why commercialized secrets sustained such popularity; as we know, no less than 104 editions of Alessio Piemontese’s work were published from 1555 to 1699.            Van de Velde’s simple yet sophisticated proposition however, that people want to be deceived (populus vult decipi),is very compelling. As we know, the invention of print did not result in the universalspread of knowledge, or a complete shift away from esotericism. Many constituencies still jealously guarded their secrets from ‘vulgar’, common folk - the Church for instance fought to maintain control of occult forces, while alchemists used decknamenand allegory to obscure the truth of their ‘divine revelations’. Thus, when the professors of secrets published their discoveries in step-by-step recipes within inexpensive books, and the charlatans sold magical remedies in the piazza at affordable prices, they gave the masses a sense of empowerment that went above and beyond the actual utility of the secrets traded. The effectiveness of the recipes or potions was ultimately of little consequence, because what customers in the marketplace were searching for were perhaps not pharmaceutical, alchemical or agricultural recipes per se, but the delightful delusion that it was within their reach to manipulate Nature and control the world around them. The spread of cheap, tradable secrets took power away from traditional authorities such as the Church, and gave those deemed unworthy of such higher pursuits the opportunity to partake in the fashionable hunt for the secrets of nature - the ‘swines’ now had access to the ‘pearls’, and the powerful symbolism of this transition made the question of the pearls’ authenticity largely inconsequential.            There is something thoroughly romantic about this narrative - certainly much more romantic than the suggestion that people were simply too stupid to realize they were being deceived - and it is perhaps the same romanticism that drives our enduring obsession with the books of secrets today.[1]Eamon, W. (1994). Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Princeton University Press. p.243.[2]Ibid., p.238.

A Vietnam War Surgeon Writes Home

17 June 2013 - 11:41am by Melissa Grafe

The Kristaps J. Keggi Vietnam War service collection, recently donated to the Historical Medical Library, contains the complete correspondence between Dr. Kristaps J. Keggi and his wife, Julie, during his time as a surgeon in the Vietnam War. The materials were all donated by Dr. Keggi, the current Elihu Professor in Orthopedics at Yale School of Medicine. The scope of the collection—personal letters, photographs, teaching materials and war wound images- presents a unique and comprehensive look into the life of a war surgeon. Letters detail stories of MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital), Montagnards plagued with leprosy, ceremonies with local tribes, a visit from a Playboy bunny and, of course, the extensive surgeries performed in a combat zone. A sample of photographs and letters are on display at the Historical Library.  

Unveiling Medicine’s Past: Medical Historical Collections Online

19 April 2013 - 3:22pm by Melissa Grafe

The Medical Historical Library’s digital collection includes School of Medicine photographs, portraits of 16th Century anatomist Andreas Vesalius, Harvey Cushing, and others, medical and surgical instruments, prints, posters, and drawings, and much more!  Recently, thousands of medical works from the 19th and early 20th centuries have been added to the Medical Heritage Library, an online resource of free and open historical resources in medicine.  This exhibit, on view in the Medical Library Rotunda, Hallway, and Foyer, showcases a selection from the thousands of items currently available online, and describes the process of digitization, bringing medical history to users throughout the world with a few simple clicks.  On view April 11 to July 5, 2013

Over 2600 International Health and Safety posters at the Medical Historical Library

21 March 2013 - 10:30am by Melissa Grafe

In January 2013, the Medical Historical Library acquired a collection of over 2600 international public health and safety posters from 56 countries.  Topics include maternal and child health, anti-drug and tobacco campaigns, breastfeeding, clean water, prevention of diseases such as malaria and polio, and accident prevention and safety.  Kenya, The Netherlands, Oman, France, and Germany are particularly well represented in the collection.  Posters issued by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Pan American Health Organization, and Doctors without Borders are also included.  Please contact Melissa Grafe, melissa.grafe@yale.edu, for more information and for access to the posters.

"Nearly Well"- the story of Civil War soldier Robert Butcher

27 January 2013 - 10:04pm by Melissa Grafe

Robert A. Butcher, Co. H, 82nd Infantry, Pennsylvania Robert A. Butcher was 21 when he enlisted in H Company 82nd Infantry Pennsylvania. Before the war, he was living with his mother, father, brother and sister in Philadelphia. His head was struck by a sabre on April 6th 1865 at Burkes’ Station, Virginia and he suffered two major cuts across the top of his head. He was admitted to Harewood Hospital on April 16th and, although the wounds healed rapidly, he began complaining of severe headache and intolerance to light. His anterior head wound re-opened a month later and began discharging unhealthy pus. After the wound opened, his headache gradually subsided and the wounds healed again. Physicians discharged him on June 9th and listed him as “nearly well.” Robert moved through three different homes for disabled veterans over the course of the next sixty years until he died in 1933. The first was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the second was in Grant, Indiana, and the third was in Chesapeake, Virginia. He varied from being listed as an inmate to being listed as a mental patient. He is buried in Hampton National Cemetery. On view now, the Medical Historical Library explores Civil War medicine through the haunting photographs of wounded soldiers in an exhibit, "Portraits of Wounded Bodies: Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866." Selections from a set of 93 photographic portraits, including Robert Butcher's, from Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C. are on display in the Rotunda of the Medical Library. In the foyer of Sterling Hall, the exhibit expands to include a larger discussion of Civil War medicine and surgery, including hospitals and nurses, using images and materials from the Medical Historical Library. On view until April 1st, 2013.  An online version of the Harewood Hospital photographs is available in the Digital Library.

Portraits of Wounded Bodies

7 January 2013 - 2:28pm by Melissa Grafe

Portraits of Wounded Bodies:  Photographs of Civil War Soldiers from Harewood Hospital, Washington, D.C., 1863-1866 January 16th-April 1st, 2013 Tours open to all on Wed. Jan. 23rd, 4 p.m., and Friday Jan. 25th at noon! One hundred and fifty years ago, the Civil War raged throughout the United States, creating thousands of casualties.  On view now, the Medical Historical Library explores Civil War medicine through the haunting photographs of wounded soldiers.  Curated by Heidi Knoblauch, a doctoral student in Yale’s Section of the History of Medicine, and Melissa Grafe, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, selections from a set of 93 photographic portraits from Harewood Hospital, Washington D.C. are on display in the Rotunda of the Medical Library.  These images, some quite graphic, depict soldiers recovering from a variety of wounds, including gunshot wounds.  The soldiers’ case histories and stories, analyzed by Heidi Knoblauch, are part of a larger examination of medical photography and Civil War memory as America commemorates the 150th anniversary of the war.  In the foyer of Sterling Hall, the exhibit expands to include a larger discussion of Civil War medicine and surgery, including hospitals and nurses, using images and materials from the Medical Historical Library.  An online version of the Harewood Hospital photographs is available in the Digital Library of the Medical Historical Library. This exhibit is on display at the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, 333 Cedar Street. For more information, contact Melissa Grafe, Ph.D, John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, at melissa.grafe@yale.edu.

Exhibit: Medicine at Work

9 October 2012 - 2:45pm by Melissa Grafe

Medicine at Work: A Selection of Instruments and Materials from the Medical Historical Library September 22nd, 2012-January 13th,2013 Medicine at Work, on view beginning September 22nd in the Rotunda of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library and foyer of Sterling Hall, exhibits instruments, prints, catalogs, fee bills, and books describing and depicting a variety of medical work. Surgical operations and tools, trepanation, electrotherapy, anesthesia, bandaging, and dissection and toxicology are a sample of some of the medical work that happened in the past, and continue today. This exhibit will use selections for the collections of the Medical Historical library to provide context for the tools and materials used in medicine and surgery.  Among its significant collections, the Medical Historical library has approximately 600 medical and scientific instruments and over 7000 prints, posters, and drawings.  

The Drs. Coleman at Yale - a New Collection for Research

10 April 2012 - 12:56pm by Melissa Grafe

The Medical Historical Library recently acquired a collection of over 600 items dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries, including legal documents, correspondence, manuscripts, printed matter and photographs pertaining to the Coleman family of New Jersey. Of particular medical historical interest in this new collection are materials by two Coleman brothers, the Yale-educated physicians Dr. Isaac Pearson Coleman (1804-1869) and Dr. James Beakes Coleman (1805-1887).James and Isaac exchanged over fifty letters in which they share some of their experiences at the newly founded Medical Institution of Yale College. One such letter sent to Isaac after his 1829 graduation from James, then still in New Haven, comments on Yale faculty: “We have in one of the new Professors one of the most theoretical criticising fellows to be met with. No writer from the flood to the present time escapes his lash and the worst of it is, he is an able and learned man and does it handsomely”.In addition to attending the Medical Institution of Yale College, as was customary at the time for young aspiring physicians, the brothers had also obtained medical training under experienced preceptors. Their apprenticeships under Dr. Ewing and Dr. de Belleville of Trenton, respectively, are documented in the collection, as well as James’s acquaintance with Thomas Story Kirkbride.During the decades as practicing physicians in New Jersey, the brothers continued to write on personal and family matters; they mention patients, including one case of “natural smallpox of the distinct variety, about 1,000 pustules,” as well as matters of contention in the profession such as “the modern notion of treating all acute diseases by the antiphlogisticating starvation method.” The collection also features manuscript lecture notes by James Coleman, recording a series of public lectures he prepared on the subject of phrenology.The Coleman brothers collection, 1748-1910, Ms Coll 36, is now open for research!  A finding aid will be posted shortly.Blog post by Judit Balassa, intern at the Medical Historical Library

Letters From a 19th Century Homeopath

15 February 2012 - 9:07am by Melissa Grafe

The Medical Historical Library recently acquired a collection of letters by John J. Cushing, one of the first homeopathic physicians in California. Cushing wrote in the 1850s to his family in Providence, Rhode Island from San Francisco, where he set up practice. The collection contains colorful anecdotes about Gold Rush era San Francisco, including some on his experiences as a doctor there.In his letters, Cushing tells how he got barred as a homeopath from the newly formed local Medical Society on account that “the board could not regard my diploma as evidence of my medical education.” The correspondence also chronicles his efforts to maintain a practice against the fierce competition that he describes on January 31, 1855 as there were “four doctors to one patient.” Cushing eventually prospers despite difficulties in collecting his fees during money shortages, recounting gifts of gratitude and payments in kind from his patients. He reports on cases such as a 4-month convalescence from typhoid fever in 1857, and a difficult delivery of an 11lb. baby, in a letter dated January 15, 1855. His correspondence also illustrates customs and social norms of his time: for instance, he comments that people frowned upon bachelor doctors attending ladies of class. by Judit Balassa
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