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The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice

May 7, 2012
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Queen Mary, University of London – by Lindsey Fitzharris

When people first discover that I am a historian of medicine, they often falter as they try to process this information. Most of the time, the response is: “That’s a real job?” It is an innocent reaction, not intended to be insulting, and is usually followed by a barrage of questions about my research. What kind of work does a historian of medicine do? Were people really bled by leeches in the past? How long did it take surgeons to amputate a limb before the discovery of anaesthetics? At the end of these conversations, one thing is always clear.

They want to know more. It was largely because of these conversations that I decided to create a website which drew upon my current postdoctoral research on 17th-century surgeons. Originally intended as a way of reaching out to friends and family who were still unclear about what it was I did as a historian of medicine, the website quickly took on a life of its own. Since its inception in September 2010, it has received over 90 000 hits.

The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice is a website that invites non-specialist readers to think critically about the history of surgery. Today, surgeons are among the highest-paid professionals in the medical world. They are the ‘miracle workers’ of the 21st century, capable of saving and transforming the lives of their patients.

Nevertheless, many people do not know that the place of the surgeon among today’s medical elite was not always guaranteed. At the beginning of the 17th century, ‘chirurgeons’ (as they were then known) were closely related to barbers and other craftsmen who learned their trade through apprenticeships. After the Restoration, however, chirurgeons broke from their medieval role and began participating in important medical debates. Their advocacy of ‘practical’ medicine and experimentation distinguished them from their university-educated counterparts, the physicians, and helped elevate their role in the medical hierarchy.

Amputation saw. British, 19th century. Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images

Amputation saw. British, 19th century. Science Museum, London/Wellcome Images

The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice provides readers with titillating facts and stories from the history of early modern surgery in ways that challenge their preconceived notions about the profession today. It also invites people to “Pick the Chirurgeon’s Brain” in a question-and-answer section. Topics covered include public executions and criminal dissection, understandings of death in the early modern period, a history of the barber’s pole, and the use of vivisection in surgical training during the 18th century.

The website has been mentioned by Discover Magazine and Scientific American, and it has also been cited on university websites as a resource for history students. Most recently, in January 2012, it was given a Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. To date, The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has over 900 followers from around the world.

Today, the questions I face no longer come exclusively from non-specialists confused about what I do as a historian of medicine. They also come from academics wanting to understand the value of pursuing such a project. What is gained – and, more importantly, is anything lost – from writing for a non-specialist audience in this way?

The question of popular versus academic history is a complex one which has plagued the profession for some time. More often than not, it is viewed by many within academia as a question of professional versus amateur, or analysis versus narrative. This debate is an important one; however, it is not one that I can expect to resolve in such a short space.

What I can do is speak from personal experience. On a professional level, the website has opened up new and exciting opportunities to engage further with the public. Recently, I appeared on Tony Robinson’s Gods and Monsters for Channel 4, and in October 2011, I was asked to write an article for the Guardian on the death of Muammar Gaddafi and how it related to a history of criminal bodies on display. In 2012, I will be working on a new documentary focusing on medicinal cannibalism during the late medieval and early modern periods. In all instances, the production or editorial teams approached me because they had read and enjoyed articles from The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.

On a personal level, I find it rewarding to write for an enthusiastic and inquisitive audience who may otherwise not have the opportunity to learn about early modern medicine. On several occasions, I have received emails from readers who tell me that they are both surprised and entertained by what they read on The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. In this way, I find the time and effort involved in maintaining such a website to be a worthwhile pursuit.

Perhaps most importantly, writing for The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice has forced me to think about my own work from the perspective of a non-specialist. This, in turn, has helped me grow as a writer, as a communicator and as a historian. For me, this is deeply satisfying.

Lindsey Fitzharris is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow attached to the School of History, Queen Mary, University of London. Visit The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice.

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