In a newly released anthology, authors from some ten universities explore how medical findings throughout history have travelled across national borders. “Explorations in Baltic Medical History, 1850-2015” (Rochester University Press) is a book on the movement of medical knowledge and experience of illness over time in our immediate geographical region.
Medical historians Jonatan Wistran (Lund) and Nils Hansson (Düsseldorf) are the editors of the book, which contains chapters written by historians, physicians, and ethics researchers from countries around the Baltic Sea.
Why medical history from the Baltic Sea?
“All historical research focuses on the dimension of time. However, we would also like to draw attention to the importance of place for how we choose to understand an historical event. The Baltic Sea region is an incredibly interesting place that has been both united and torn apart by differing and conflicting political forces. The anthology consists of ten different chapters that shed light on the how this has characterised medicine and its practitioners”, says Nils Hansson, employed as an associate professor at the Department of History, Theory and Ethics of Medicine at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf.
Both editors talk about how the global political developments in recent years have moved toward increased isolationism and that those who argue for stronger borders often refer back in time, to history, to legitimise the claim that things were better in the past.
“However, this notion is substantially false. In contrast, we demonstrate in our book how a rich and active exchange of knowledge between the countries around the Baltic Sea instigated the rapid development of medical science in the late 1800s and early 1900s”, says Jonatan Wistrand, physician and researcher at the Department of Medical History at Lund University.
Researchers have travelled between the countries, patients of different nationalities have met at healthcare facilities, medical methods have spread across the borders. One example of knowledge dissemination highlighted in the book of particular interest from a Swedish perspective is the Zander machines named after Swedish physician Gustaf Zander (1835-1920). The Gothenburg-based historian Anders Ottosson writes about the export of Zander’s medico-mechanical physiotherapy, reminiscent of modern gyms.
Politics and medicine
Another aspect which is highlighted is how close the ties between medicine and politics have been, not only in current times but also historically. Political interest has at times and in different places temporarily devastated medicine, something that the Polish physician and medical historian Joanna Nieznanowska demonstrates in her chapter on how the medical community in Szczecin was destroyed by the ravages of the Second World War. In other cases, the link between medicine and politics has been less dramatic yet still significant, for example the legislation on biobanks in different countries around the Baltic Sea at the turn of the millennium. Medical engineer Katharina Beier at the University of Göttingen writes about this.
The patient’s voice
The book focuses on professionals, however, the exchange of medical knowledge in the Baltic Sea region has not focused purely on scientific findings. From early on, patients also travelled between the countries, sharing their stories about illness as an experience at large-scale healthcare facilities. As an example of this, Jonatan Wistrand writes about the poet Harriet Löwenhjelm’s depiction of life at sanatoria in Denmark, Sweden and Norway during the 1910s.
Jonatan Wistrand and Nils Hansson also emphasise that medical history can train our capacity for healthy scepticism and challenging temporary “fads”. Historian Michaela Malmberg provides an example of this in her text on the rise, dissemination and fall of gynaecological massage with a focus on Sweden and Germany. When the unusual treatment method against various ‘female’ diseases emerged at the end of the 1800s, the Swedish Major and physiotherapist Thure Brandt (1819-1895) was particularly influential.
“Historical research can be reflective for those of us living here and now. By considering our reflection in the past we discover things we otherwise cannot easily see, which then also encourages thought and reflection”, says Jonatan Wistrand.
The book emerged from the conference “Bridging the Baltic: Circulation of medical knowledge in the Baltic Sea region”, which was organised in autumn 2014 in Lund with financial support from the Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, the Grace and Philip Sandblom Foundation as well as the Bengt Lindskog Foundation.