I spent my morning in the tiny reading room of the History of Medicine division of the Edward G. Miner Library at the University of Rochester, reading through several editions of an apparently very popular work of popular medicine called The People’s Medical Lighthouse. My interest in the Lighthouse is somewhat tangential: in fall of 1855, Josephine McCarty, an abandoned wife and bereft mother recovering from personal tragedy and about to enroll in medical school as a preface to a long career as an abortionist, made some cash selling copies of Dr. Harmon K. Root’s “Series of Popular and Scientific Essays” on a wide (and I do mean wide) variety of medical topics.
Reading popular medical manuals from the 19th century is always a strange joy: there’s an earnest practicality to their goal that appeals to me, yet it’s always tempered by the limitations of contemporary medical knowledge and the often bizarre pronouncements issued to readers. Personal obsessions often set the work off balance: Dr. Root specialized in lung disease, and took every opportunity to warn his readers of the various causes of consumption, which he thought to include sterility, loss of the senses, “imperfect menstruation,” syphilitic sores, costiveness, chairs and beds, unhappy marriage, and India rubber manufacture (cures included music and dancing, “wedded love,” and religion).
Books like these–like all books, I suppose–are as much snapshots of their times as compendiums of information about medical knowledge of the time. Dr. Root’s book is the product of a time when consumption accounted for more deaths than any other single medical cause, when changes in social structure inspired professionals of all fields to prescribe minutely the conditions of marriage, when education and masturbation seemed equal threats to continuing physical health, and when religion, the constitution, and unity seemed increasingly under attack. In his Rules for Life on the final page of the volume, Root urged his readers to adhere to the values of republicanism, Christianity, and frugality, as essential to preserving the sound life obtained through a healthy body.
What this can tell me about my protagonist, Josephine, I don’t know. I’m not inclined to read much into her association with this text: if I were nearly 30, deserted by my husband, and looking for work, I wouldn’t need to believe too strongly in the message of a book to happily sell it for a profit. Still, it’s interesting to note that in 1856, Josephine turned from selling the work of Dr. Root in New York to studying to become a doctor herself in Philadelphia, home of the pioneering Female Medical College. Did a temporary source of income become a calling for Josephine? Did she, perhaps, look at the book she was peddling to health-conscious New Yorkers and think “I can do better?”
Reconstructing any single reader’s experience with a particular book is an impossible dream. It’s tempting, and I might argue important, to speculate, but short of stumbling on a diary entry or letter detailing the encounter (“Dear John, I read The People’s Medical Lighthouse today and was very relieved to learn that there is a cure for that frog in my stomach”), any attempt to actually nail down the meaning of an individual’s reading is doomed to failure. But there’s something to be said, I think, for approaching that experience as nearly as possible–if only by holding the book in one’s hand, turning the crackly pages, and opening that slippery historical imagination to the infinite possibilities.