Sari Altschuler, The Medical Imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)
Today Laurel Daen reviews Sari Altschuler’s The Medical Imagination. Laurel Daen is the 2018-2020 NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Her current book project is about disability, authority, and the formation of the American nation state. Laurel received her PhD from William & Mary in 2016 and was an NEH Long-term Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society from 2017-2018.
In the early American republic, physicians wrote poetry to try out their medical theories, writers formulated concepts that made their way into medical texts, and everyday people viewed the disciplines of medicine and literature as fundamentally intertwined. Medicine and literature were mutually constitutive and reinforcing, Sari Altschuler explains in The Medical Imagination, and their relationship was seen as crucial to the production of medical knowledge. For example, medical educators urged their students to read and write fiction with the insistence that these practices would cultivate their “microscopic eye” or ability to detect and decipher disease (4). In addition, many doctors, writers, and doctor-writers used literary forms to conduct medical research, especially about topics that were difficult to test empirically. How, for instance, was one to evaluate the workings of sympathy, the universal force commonly understood to link body part to body part in a functioning human body and person to person in a functioning society? It was through literature that early national physicians and writers engaged with these types of questions, cultivating their skills in “imaginative experimentation”—or use of the imagination to craft and assess models of health (8). Continue reading