At any given time, Hopkins History of Medicine grad students can be found rummaging away in archives as far apart as Paris, Beijing, London, and Entebbe. Some of us have even been known to visit Philadelphia and Washington DC.
Doing historical research can be exciting and frustrating. Notes from the Field gives an idea of some of the wonderful and fascinating research discoveries and experiences of our grad students.
From Seth LeJacq, July 2014
At the very end of 2013, as I was finishing up an eighteen-month research trip to England, I discovered that one of the men I was researching had published a pamphlet in 1809. It’s rare. I could only identify two copies: one at the University of Manchester, and another for sale in Philadelphia. I was living in London at the time, due to return to the US in a matter of days, and had tightly scheduled my remaining time as I sprinted to get through my unfinished research. I didn’t know if I would come back to the UK before completing my dissertation, though, and was sure that I couldn’t do so just to visit Manchester to read a single pamphlet. I’d never been to the city before, but I realized that I had to see the pamphlet before I left.
To conserve as much research time as I could, I worked all day at the archives in London and took an overnight bus to Manchester, returning to London on the same day I arrived. I had to wait for hours for the library to open—we got in very early in the morning—and when I finally got my hands on the pamphlet it took less than an hour to read and photograph the entire thing. But it was a major discovery for me—the only personal account of this sort that has survived. And it was a story that had never been worked out before. The pamphlet was vague and cryptic. Without the archival work I’d already done, it would have been meaningless. In the scheme of things it was a small discovery, of course, just a little secret, but I had never experienced different strands of my research coming together in such a seamless, satisfying way before. I left the library and wandered through an outdoor Christmas market in a happy daze, exhausted and overcaffeinated after my sleepless night on Megabus.
Back in London, I immediately wrote to Christine Ruggere, Associate Director of the Institute and curator of the historical collection. I wanted to buy the copy of the pamphlet in Philadelphia, but had no idea how to do it. She took care of the entire process, and the pamphlet was waiting for me when I finally returned to Baltimore.
From Julia Cummiskey, February 2014
One of the things I've enjoyed doing in Uganda is visiting the places that researchers in the past used and described in their letters, reports, and publications. Last November I dragged a friend to Zika Forest, between Kampala and Entebbe, to climb the 120ft tower erected in the 1940s (and moved to its present location in the 1960s) to study mosquito feeding habits. The tower has platforms at regular intervals where monkeys and people were stationed for 24-hour periods to attract and capture mosquitos.
The goal was to determine which species fed at which heights and times of day. I got dizzy in broad daylight—can't imagine climbing this thing in the dark! Seeing the tower in person brought to life some of the archival descriptions I've found about anesthetized monkeys laid out on platforms and accompanied by people to keep them warm with hot water bottles and catch the feeding mosquitos.
The locals certainly found it bizarre—one of the scientists complained in 1961, "Fantastic as it may seem, even our entomological work does not escape attention, particularly when, as in most of our work on activity-cycles in the vectors, it involves work at all hours of the night. it might be supposed that round the clock duties would be held in respect as a shining example of industry. Instead, night activities are given the most nefarious interpretations by the local people". Small wonder!
From Kirsten Moore, February 2014
I had to do research at Syracuse over spring break for my seminar paper/future second year paper on the 1918-19 influenza pandemic in Kenya and Uganda. This consisted of simply scanning over 1,500 documents on microfilm for about 7-9 hours per day that week (a standard grab-and-dash operation).
My second morning there, I overheard a few movers talking to one of the librarians about about taking away the cabinets of microfilm to the basement of a different building on campus. Then they start taking out cabinet after cabinet of microfilm. After spending about 15 minutes devising a research triage plan/freaking out, I asked the librarian about the move. Fortunately, they were leaving the Kenya National Archive collection on-site.
However, especially after a night where I thought I had lost my flash drive—about 8 hours worth of scanning from that first day—I was still pretty stressed.