Out of the Dead House: 19th-Century Women Physicians and the Writing of Medicine

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In the last decades of the nineteenth century, two thousand women physicians formed a significant and lively scientific community in the United States. Many were active writers; they participated in the development of medical record-keeping and research, and they wrote self-help books, social and political essays, fiction, and poetry. Out of the Dead House rediscovers the contributions these women made to the developing practice of medicine and to a community of women in science.
    Susan Wells combines studies of medical genres, such as the patient history or the diagnostic conversation, with discussions of individual writers. The women she discusses include Ann Preston, the first woman dean of a medical college; Hannah Longshore, a successful practitioner who combined conventional and homeopathic medicine; Rebecca Crumpler, the first African American woman physician to publish a medical book; and Mary Putnam Jacobi, writer of more than 180 medical articles and several important books. Wells shows how these women learned to write, what they wrote, and how these texts were read.
    Out of the Dead House also documents the ways that women doctors influenced medical discourse during the formation of the modern profession. They invented forms and strategies for medical research and writing, including methods of using survey information, taking patient histories, and telling case histories. Out of the Dead House  adds a critical episode to the developing story of women as producers and critics of culture, including scientific culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A highly original contribution to studies of the relationship between gender, medicine, and science, offering fresh insights regarding the entrance of women into the medical profession. Wells's nuanced story will appeal to literary scholars, medical historians, and all readers interested in revisiting this complex and rewarding terrain."—Regina Morantz-Sanchez, author of Conduct Unbecoming a Woman: Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn
Regina Morantz Sanchez
A highly original contribution to studies of the relationship between gender, medicine, and science, offering fresh insights regarding the entrance of women into the medical profession. Wells's nuanced story will appeal to literary scholars, medical historians, and all readers interested in revisiting this complex and rewarding terrain.
In this well-referenced examination of how women doctors impacted 19th-century medical discourse, Wells (English, Temple U.) studies medical genres and practitioners such as Hannah Longshore, who combined conventional with homeopathic medicine, and Rebecca Crumpler, the first African-American woman to publish a medical book. The title refers to how another female M.D.'s interest in medicine was piqued. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Johanna Shapiro, PhD (University of California Irvine College of Medicine)
Description: Using professional and popular contemporary written sources, this book examines how mid-nineteenth century women physicians employed variously "regular" (or normative), masquerading, or transgressive approaches to speak to their patients, write about medicine, and participate in dissection and clinical lectures within the predominantly male-gendered profession of medicine.
Purpose: The purpose is to examine women physicians' "distinctive strategies for speaking and writing" as well as employing the clinical gaze, in their struggle to attain a legitimate place in the "hostile profession" of medicine. This type of textual approach has been underutilized in examining the history of women in medicine and as such the book addresses an important oversight. Generally speaking, the book meets its aims, although the detailed analysis sometimes can leave the reader overlooking the forest for the trees.
Audience: The book will likely be of value primarily to historians of medicine and experts in historical textual analysis. The author probably intends a wider audience, which the issues and concepts raised in the book deserves, but the average medical student, resident, or practicing physician will find the book's jargon and occasional resultant opacity heavy going. If general medical readers could somehow penetrate the thicket of the book's postmodernist terms, they would be well-rewarded by the subtle and thought-provoking post-feminist insights contained between its covers. The author is certainly a legitimate expert in the area about which she writes.
Features: The author analyzes the similarities and differences in how male and female physicians talked to their patients; in how they wrote professionally about patients and their diseases; and in the public spectacle created when they "gazed upon" and observed the human body. A particular strength of the book lies in its ability to bring to life a series of very different, but uniformly intriguing, women physicians. The final chapter on "Forbidden Sights" is especially insightful and theoretically coherent. The inclusion of several black-and-white photographs of these women doctors enlivens the text.
Assessment: The book is rather densely written and suffers from an overreliance on arcane and inaccessible vocabulary. Nevertheless, the pleasure the author takes in her topic is palpable, and this enthusiasm, coupled with meticulous research, compensates for any stylistic deficits. For the patient reader, this book will open previously unexplored vistas of understanding the complexity and diversity of the "mothers" of medicine.

3 Stars from Doody
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780299171704
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 328

Meet the Author

Susan Wells is professor of English at Temple University. She is the author of Sweet Reason: Rhetoric and the Discourses of Modernity and The Dialectics of Representation.

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Table of Contents

1 Out of the Dead House 3
2 Medical Conversations and Medical Histories 16
3 Invisible Writing I: Ann Preston Invents an Institution 57
4 Learning to Write Medicine 80
5 Invisible Writing II: Hannah Longshore and the Borders of Regularity 122
6 Mary Putnam Jacobi: Medicine as Will and Idea 146
7 Forbidden Sights: Women and the Visual Economy of Medicine 193
Notes 229
Works Cited 280
Index 307
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