Popularising the history of medicine
Karl Sudhoff’s public engagement – by Claudia Stein
Karl Sudhoff (1853–1938), the first professional historian of medicine, is today best remembered for a political decision which he took late in his life. At the end of a long and very successful career, in 1933, at the age of 80, he joined the Nazi Party. It was a move that disconcerted many of his students and fellow academics, and it continues to haunt those who have written on him since then. Indeed, it is only recently that scholars have ventured to seriously investigate Sudhoff’s political views and entanglement with Nazi ideology and politics. Putting aside his late career, what is less well known than it should be is that his reputation and outstanding success in German academia derived from his extensive earlier public engagement work promoting the history of medicine.
Historians have generally emphasised Sudhoff’s administrative skills and academic achievements as elements of his career success. And, indeed, Sudhoff was a gifted political strategist and administrator. He relentlessly lobbied for the history of medicine as an independent academic discipline in professional organisations, on boards of scientific journals and on the slippery floors of academic politics. His efforts were crowned with success when, in 1905, at the age of 52, he became Germany’s first professor for the history of medicine. His Institut für die Geschichte der Medizin und Naturwissenschaften became a hub for scholars from around the world and was renamed the Karl-Sudhoff Institut in the year of his death. Some of the finest medical historians were trained there.
There is no doubt then that political savvy and administrative skills did contribute to Sudhoff’s career success, and they ensured that his historical expertise was widely acknowledged. Yet few now appreciate that he had a renowned public engagement talent, communicating with people from all walks of life, and this enabled him to popularise the history of medicine throughout his lifetime.
Sudhoff grasped every opportunity to address a wider, more general audience via articles in national and international newspapers or illustrated journals. He also spent much time on the road to present his ideas and research to audiences all over Europe. Alongside these more traditional ways of engaging with the public, Sudhoff was not afraid to explore novel avenues of communication. He was particularly interested in curating exhibitions on medical and health-related themes, which only became popular in Germany in the last decades of the 19th century. It goes almost without saying that he excelled here too. For example, his 1898 exhibit of global scientific and medical artefacts since prehistoric times at the arts and crafts museum at Düsseldorf, set up for the occasion of the 70th meeting of Germany’s most prestigious scientific organisation, the Versammlung Deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte, was highly acclaimed. For Sudhoff, still working as a medical practitioner in the Rhineland, the exhibition was the perfect means not only to alert his scientific peers to the new section on the history of medicine at the meeting itself, but also to sell his subject to a wider non-academic audience.
His success at Düsseldorf encouraged him to explore the area of curating further; over the years he gained considerable expertise in the acquisition of objects and their effective display. He also established a valuable network of contacts at home and abroad to fulfil his ambition of developing a popular basis for the pursuit of the history of medicine as well as to support his own growing collection of artefacts at his newly established institute in Leipzig. It is hardly surprising therefore that the renowned Dresden pharmaceutical industrialist, Karl August Lingner (1867–1916) – producer of the internationally bestselling mouthwash Odol – contacted him in May 1909. Lingner wanted Sudhoff to direct the histo-ethnological section of Lingner’s Internationale Hygiene Ausstellung (IHA) to be held in the Saxon capital of Dresden during the summer of 1911.
Lingner had ambitious plans for his international fair. In size and splendour, it was to surpass all previous exhibitions on similar themes. Moreover, for the first time, it would not merely be a trade fair for industrial products, but would celebrate hygienic instruction and health education for everyone. The histo-ethnological section was central to Lingner’s vision for the IHA. Set next to a scientific section addressed to specialists, and a larger popular exhibit known as Der Mensch, the public engagement enterprise introduced to a lay audience the functioning of the human body according to the latest scientific theories. Sudhoff’s section was meant to introduce to the great and good a ‘book of hygiene’ that the IHA was to write over its 320,000 square metres in the Great Gardens behind the Royal Summer Palais.
The organisation was certainly more daunting than any of Sudhoff’s previous exhibitions. But it was precisely the unprecedented size of the IHA and the large crowds of visitors expected that made him eagerly accept Lingner’s invitation. The larger the audience to which he could hope to introduce his new academic discipline, the better. It might also help to silence those among his medical peers who decried the history of medicine as useless for the education of modern scientific physicians. Although these criticisms by members of the new laboratory sciences had been loudest around the time of Sudhoff’s appointment to his professorship in 1905, he still felt the rub.
Sudhoff was anxious to reinstate and reaffirm the right of his new discipline of the history of medicine to what he called ‘academic citizenship’ (akademisches Bürgerrecht). Moreover, even more importantly, he anticipated that a successful exhibition would lend support to his view that a professional history of medicine should entail more than merely writing books and articles for scholars and teaching historical facts to students: it could have practical bearing on contemporary socio-medical problems (for example, the comprehension of venereal disease and public hygiene).
He was convinced that useful and effective knowledge with which to face these problems could only be produced through a close collaboration between a history that aimed at understanding human nature through investigation of past human activity and the modern medical sciences that aimed at explaining human action through the laws of nature. For him, the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) should not to be placed on a course of collision – as they were increasingly depicted then (as now) – nor should the latter be reduced simply to the status of a handmaiden to the former. Both should be on an equal footing to solve social problems in efficient and imaginative ways.
Sudhoff calculated that an entire section devoted to the history of medicine at the biggest health and hygiene exhibition ever organised could yield more support and acceptance for his cause than any of his writings would ever be able to achieve. He was right; his histo-ethnology was a great success. It terms of the numbers of viewers, it was outdone only by Der Mensch, which had been organised by Lingner himself. Indeed, like Der Mensch, Sudhoff’s section occasionally had to be closed in order to cope with the mass of visitors. The queuing crowds were “eager, indeed voracious, famished,” Sudhoff remembered with satisfaction. Between May and September, thousands of history enthusiasts strolled through the displays, which were spread over 90 rooms, courtyards, hallways and galleries. With over 20,000 artefacts, models, photographs, paintings and drawings, it was a dazzling spectacle.
Visitor enthusiasm reassured Sudhoff that the history of medicine could and should make a valuable contribution to the teaching of public health and hygiene. Unanimously, reviewers of the IHA praised his section, referring to it as outstanding and a necessary component of an exhibition that was predominantly devoted to the biological functioning of the human body and the achievements of the natural sciences. What it meant to be human could not be explained through the biological functioning of bodies alone, one reviewer remarked, echoing Sudhoff’s own vision of the cooperation between the human and the natural sciences. Human beings consisted not only of their material shells but were guided and governed by their souls and wills. By showing the products of human ingenuity in the past, the histo-ethnological section added this important dimension and helped the visitor to understand his or her own humanity.
Sudhoff was undoubtedly one of the most productive and successful academics of his time, and he was guided by a clear vision of what he wanted the history of medicine to become. Crucially, he wanted his discipline to contribute to solving the urgent socio-political problems that plagued his society, and he explored all possible avenues to achieve his aims. Curating international exhibitions turned out to be one of the most successful ways he could spread his message among a wide audience. We can only wonder how his hopes of rendering his historical research socially and politically relevant – an ambition which dominates the academic world today – may also have rendered him vulnerable to the political forces that would exploit such noble ambitions to such terrible ends.
Dr Claudia Stein is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick, where she explores theoretical approaches of medical policing used in 18th-century Bavaria and the emergence of new organised medical practices through which the subjects were governed and governed themselves. She also has a strong interest in visual culture, and is currently working on the visualisation practices of late 19th- and 20th-century public health in Germany and Britain. Do get in touch with Claudia if you are researching in these areas (firstname.lastname@example.org).