Discovering Love in a Smallpox Hospital

By Dr. Andrew Wehrman

When I was working on my dissertation, I remember talking to my advisor T.H. Breen about digital cameras in archives and online databases changing the way people research and write about history. Breen quipped, “With all that technology, you should be able to research and write your dissertation in six months, right?” He liked to go to archives with a stack of index cards and write individual quotations and references on each one. The research trips ended with hundreds of cards and he would lay them out as he began writing, which has led to a profoundly productive career. My methods have changed rapidly with technology, and while my research has not churned out faster, it has made my work richer (richer in detail, not money, folks). I will give you an example of how archival photography, online databases, and savvy keyword searching breathed new life into documents that an index card system would likely never have caught.

On one of my first archival research trips in graduate school, I visited the Phillips Library, in Salem, Massachusetts, which has since moved Rowley, Massachusetts. I took photos of the collection labeled “Salem Hospital Records, 1777.” These were detailed medical records of patients in Salem’s smallpox inoculation hospital. While doing my research, I focused on earlier years not expecting these records to become part of my dissertation but photographed them anyway thinking they might prove useful later. I have since found that records like these are exceedingly rare. Most hospital records, especially from smallpox hospitals, did not survive. These were particularly detailed, consisting of 577 patient records spread across two dozen little notebooks and remarkably difficult to read. If you think your doctor’s handwriting is bad, try one from the eighteenth century. The doctor, Edward Augustus Holyoke, listed each patient, their age, and a record of symptoms and treatments given. To make sense of his notes, I created an Excel spreadsheet, to keep track of and draw conclusions about his group of patients.

Among the most interesting details, Holyoke almost always included the number of pocks that appeared on each patient’s body after inoculation. Inoculation—the purposeful insertion of smallpox matter via an incision usually on a patient’s arm—most often resulted in a mild case of smallpox and grant lifelong immunity. This was before the discovery of vaccination, which uses cowpox matter and would confer immunity without the infection (humans cannot spread cowpox). Anecdotally, I knew some patients would get a few pocks, usually on their faces and hands, and in rare cases patients would get hundreds all over their bodies. Under ideal conditions fewer than one percent died from the procedure. Using my spreadsheet, I tracked the number of pocks to look for any obvious patterns. Out of 577 patients, about half received fifty or fewer. Thirty lucky patients received zero, one, or two. However, there were also thirty patients with over a thousand. Only one patient, a baby girl just a few months old, died from the procedure, but other babies went through it fine. There did not seem to be any real pattern for who fared better or worse based on age, sex, race, or family.  

As I was finishing my book manuscript, I came back to these photos and my spreadsheet and began to wonder about those patients with thousands of pocks. Surviving but scarred, did they live long after their inoculations? Were they able to get married or have children? Questions I could not easily answer when I started the project. After an afternoon of internet searching, I uncovered what I think is a love story. I focused my attention on one name in the records: Judith Herbert. Judith was 21 years old when she entered Salem Hospital in spring of 1777 to be inoculated. Hers was a tough case. Although she survived, she broke out with “4 or 5 thousand pustules.” To find out more, I googled “Judith Herbert” in Salem, MA, and found her in several genealogical records available through Google Books and Internet Archive. I even found in Dr. Holyoke’s diary that he attended the wedding of Judith Herbert of Wenham, Massachusetts and Dr. Edward Barnard in 1781. Judith’s marriage was significant since young women and their parents worried that smallpox scars would prevent them finding a husband.  

After finding the marriage record, I found out more about Dr. Edward Barnard. It turns out that he was a Harvard graduate. I knew to search Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, which contains biographical sketches of every student who attended Harvard College from its first class in 1642 through 1774. Fortunately, I did not even have to leave my desk. Volume 18 of Sibley’s is available online via HathiTrust Digital Library. Where I learned that Barnard graduated from Harvard in spring of 1774, helped organize his hometown of Haverhill’s militia company in September, and in October 1775 began studying medicine with Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke in Salem. Barnard was Holyoke’s assistant when his future wife broke out with 5000 pocks in Salem Hospital.

Now, I cannot say for sure that this is when they first met or where they fell in love. But it makes sense that Barnard attended Herbert closely as she battled one of the most severe cases of inoculated smallpox. In my historical imagination, five thousand little cartoon hearts swirled around them—one for each bloody pustule, of course. The scars did not affect a long marriage or a long life but may have affected her fertility. Judith and Edward had just one child together, a son also named Edward. They were married for forty years until Dr. Edward Barnard died in 1822. Remarkably, Judith Herbert Barnard died in 1845 at age 90.

Even though Breen was right that taking digital photos in the archive and searching them against digitized materials online has not made research and writing any faster, I do think it has made it better.


Dr. Andrew Wehrman is a historian of early American history and the history of American medicine at Central Michigan University. His current book project The Contagion of Liberty argues that popular demand for public inoculations during smallpox epidemics in the 1760s and 1770s infected Revolutionary politics and changed the way Americans understood their health and government’s responsibility to protect it.

Twitter: @ProfWehrman

Finding "Place" in the Past

By Camden Burd

M-20 is a not a particularly unique highway. It’s just one of many that crisscross the Michigan landscape. Yet the highway does carry some special significance to me. I drove it often when commuting between my family’s small cabin near Remus (pictured above) and Mt. Pleasant while studying at Central Michigan University. I can still visualize many of the sites along the route. Whether it was the humble façade of the Remus Tavern or the grandiose “Welcome to Mt. Pleasant” painted across the Ann Arbor Railroad Bridge on western edge of town, the familiar landmarks connected me to specific place, time, and experience.

We all have these places: a childhood home, a familiar walk, an iconic tree—even a favorite coffee shop can stir feelings of familiarity, and comfort. Most significantly, though, they create meaning. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, scholar of landscape studies, describes this type of attachment as a “sense of place.” People often transform mundane locations, nameless vistas, and sprawling landscapes into places because of “a lively awareness of the familiar environment, a ritual repetition, [and] a sense of fellowship based on shared experience.” Understanding the significance of a place tells us about the values of people who find meaning in the landscapes, monuments, and activities associated with those particular places.  

Historicizing a “sense place” has been the constant thread of my academic work since I began my MA in History at Central Michigan University in 2012. I first became interested with the study of place when I examined the historical roots of Michigan’s tourism industry in Northern Michigan. I was enamored with the perennial tradition of tourists and cottage-goers that traveled “Up North” for recreation and respite. With guidance from Jay Martin and Brittany Bayless Fremion, I dedicated my MA thesis to the cultural and environmental roots of the still-modern tradition. The core material of that research would later become the basis for my first peer-reviewed article, “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Michigan Historical Review. Since then I have written on various topics related to “sense of place.” Whether it was an essay describing how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha served as a shared language for progressive-era conservationists to find new meaning in the cutover districts of the Upper Midwest or another article that illustrates how diminished economic activity on the Erie Canal motivated state and national politicians to create a new heritage-tourism industry along the artificial river. I have always started my research with a particular place and study the people who found meaning in it. Like a mirror, the study of the sense of place can reveal cultural assumptions, environmental values, and community values. 

Of course, a place’s meaning can change over time. Economic forces often disrupt livelihoods and community networks. New technologies shift the nature of work and how individuals interact with each other as well as local geography. Environmental changes can also shift the meaning of a place. Forests fall, rivers become dammed, and the behemoth influence of industrialization commodifies, extracts, and alters landscapes beyond recognition. Therefore, a sense of place can be a valuable lens to study past cultures. How historic groups value, interpret, and use landscape offers historians a unique lens to track environmental, economic, political, and cultural shifts over time. After all, these are the places where people make a home, find work, form identity, and create meaning.

 

Some suggested/favorite readings on Place:

Kate Brown, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Jared Famer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).


Camden Burd received his PhD in History from the University of Rochester in 2019. Before his time in Western New York, he spent two years completing his MA in History from Central Michigan University. During the 2019-2020 academic year Camden will be an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the New York Botanical Garden.

www.camdenburd.com

To Preserve and Protect: Fostering Public Awareness in Shared History

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 Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

By Marc Van Horn

At an early age, I experienced firsthand the dramatic emotional and intellectual effect historical sites can have on the public.  My interaction with places such as the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and the medieval town of L’Argentera, Spain, awakened a ceaseless passion.  My experiences as a child resulted in later academic endeavors in history and anthropology in adulthood.  As I pursued my bachelor’s degree in those fields, it became clear that historic places gain great meaning by benefiting the public, especially by sparking curiosity in tomorrow’s historians and anthropologists.  I also realized that my role should be to make history relevant and important to a wider audience, and that there is no better classroom in which to accomplish that than at a historical place.  However, this became clear to me only after working in historical interpretation.  As a graduate student in the Cultural Resource Management Master’s program at CMU, I have had the opportunity to contribute to a number of projects involving the public and historic sites.  To me this is the most direct and effective way to foster the respect and stewardship of history in modern society.

During the summers of 2016 and 2017, I served the public as an historical interpreter at Fort Mackinac, a site managed by Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) on Mackinac Island, MI.  This work led directly to my completion of an internship in public history under the guidance of Katie Mallory, Curator of Education at MSHP, and Dr. Brittany Fremion, my advisor in the Department of History here at CMU.  Specifically, I conducted primary source research into the environment, sanitary conditions, and medical practices present at Fort Mackinac in the 1870s through the 1890s.  My conclusion was that Fort Mackinac was an unusually healthy and desirable posting during those decades, which aligned with the research of others I had also examined.  Before this undertaking, I had developed a rudimentary version of a short, guided walking tour of the fort focused on issues of health and sanitation.  After my own research into various post surgeons’ correspondence with the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army located in New York, and research into the art of historical interpretation itself, I was able to greatly expand and improve my walking tour.  As a result, I received generally positive feedback on my tours, certainly better than I had before.  This experience taught me that the public can greatly benefit by the hard work of historians to bring the rich heritage of historical sites to life in an accessible and digestible way.  Thusly, we can more directly and efficiently benefit humanity through our beloved discipline.

I am currently serving as graduate assistant in museum education at Central Michigan University’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History under the direction of Caity Sweet-Burnell, the Museum Educator.  The core of my responsibilities includes editing and reorganizing a series of museum programs titled “Michigan Through the Ages.”  I began by fact-checking and sourcing the information found within the programs.  I then reorganized the program outlines, focusing on clarity, design efficiency, and brevity.  Since we have come to understand that learning takes many forms and occurs in different ways, I sought to include as many hands-on and interactive activities as possible in the programs.  Also in my duties as a graduate assistant, I have often been tasked with designing and implementing new programs for after-school groups.  Once again, my approach required flexibility, coordination, and adaptability in order to present appropriate programs in effective ways.  Every situation brings unique challenges, waiting to be overcome through perseverance, patience, and innovation.  In many ways, barriers to interpretive and educational programs can be seen as metaphors for the obstacles against fostering historical understanding in society. 

From my experiences I learned that the roles of a historian are to unearth forgotten truths, revisit and revamp the pursuit of learning, and foster dialogue and collective understanding.  It is not enough to remain in our ivory tower, content to advance our own isolated goals and largely evade those of the public in perpetuity.  My work in public history has allowed me to refine my belief that the gap between academia and society in recognizing and respecting our heritage is most effectively bridged through historical interpretation at our most important sites.  Our ivory tower must become a forum built on common cultural ground, a place open to all and constructive for all.


Marc Van Horn is currently a student in the Cultural Resource Management Master's program at CMU, and he is working as a graduate assistant at CMU's Museum of Cultural and Natural History. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and anthropology form CMU in 2009.

But Do I Get to Wear a Hat?: A Day of Historical Interpretation

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

By Alexander Greff

     UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA; CMU ALUMUS

“Hey – are you the general?” Teenagers are always the one’s who ask first, though many of their parents aren’t far behind. It’s the question I seem to get more often than anything: more than anything about the house, the field equipment, the artillery pieces, or the stables – and it leaves me seriously reconsidering my commitment to grow a 1870s-style mustache. How was I supposed to know my facial hair would bleach in the summer sun?!

It was a grand, old-timey kind of summer that I spent, working as an undergraduate history major at Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota. It wasn’t my first stint working in public history (though that had also involved a cowboy-esque persona), but it was my most memorable. My work was split that summer between leading tours at a recreated Mandan Native American village site, and the adjoining 19th century frontier fort, which just so happened to be the final posting of George Armstrong Custer (only a Lieutenant Colonel after the Civil War, mind!) before the Little Bighorn. The fort posting also involved full living history -- the men in the blue woolen uniforms, the women in cotton dresses with petticoats and bonnets. Come the festival days of mid July, which involved activities in close proximity to horses, it was hard to tell who suffered most in the heat. And despite precipitous attempts to grow my hair out in a cool, period fashion, it was one of the best history related jobs I’ve had.

Public history is great for getting a real sense of the people’s perceptions of our field. You find out what interests people most about the past, like a real sense of connecting to famous or everyday people. Every time I had to put down my open-fire roasted cowboy coffee and explain to a family that I was not General Custer, but rather his aide dè campe and not fit to wear his fancy buckskins, I’d always get a laugh. Except with the teenagers. They laugh at nothing, but the unease of a docent earnestly describing the purpose of a fainting couch. Then they would laugh, because it meant talking about corsets. And this was public history – the conversation between the fixed stories of historical folks and objects, and the people with all new faces and interests to passed down our dusty road every day. If nothing else, working in public history is like being an improv-academic – you find that every person is interested in something different -- from cast iron cutlery, to the stables, to the firearms -- and that you’re responsible for keeping them entertained and, hopefully, letting them walk away better informed about the past.

Sometimes this goes awry and chaos becomes the teacher. On one day, with a particularly large tour, my colleague led the way under the line of cottonwood trees in front of the main house. From the back of the group there was little time to warn him of the six-foot long bull snake sliding out of the branches before it landed on his head, sending half the students running back towards the parking lot. “How lucky were these students?” I thought, nobody else every gets to join us in directly reliving all the parts of living on the frontier. Snakes were only one of the frequent interactions with the conditions of the past that, at least through terror, compelled visitors to think more about their own relationship with history…and how to safely approach a guest book laid across an outdoor veranda. (Another story, but I’m sure you can guess…)

Most days, working in public history was about taking all the mundane parts of the past and being given the chance to remember that history is full of weird things that interest people. The public historian is in the unique position not just to reach out to, but also to engage with the public in a way that research and writing doesn't often allow. And it's a great opportunity to remember the people (alive or long passed) who first interested you in history and to pass that opportunity on. So mind the snakes, grab some cowboy coffee, and try not to let the handlebar mustache distract you too much from jumping into history!