Recent Publications and Projects
The Medical imagination: Literature and Health in the Early United States
In 1872, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Science does not know its debt to imagination," words that still ring true in the worlds of health and health care today. The checklists and clinical algorithms of modern medicine leave little space for imagination, and yet we depend on creativity and ingenuity for the advancement of medicine—to diagnose unusual conditions, to innovate treatment, and to make groundbreaking discoveries. We know a great deal about the empirical aspects of medicine, but we know far less about what the medical imagination is, what it does, how it works, or how we might train it.
In The Medical Imagination, Sari Altschuler argues that this was not always so. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, doctors understood the imagination to be directly connected to health, intimately involved in healing, and central to medical discovery. In fact, for physicians and other health writers in the early United States, literature provided important forms for crafting, testing, and implementing theories of health. Reading and writing poetry trained judgment, cultivated inventiveness, sharpened observation, and supplied evidence for medical research, while novels and short stories offered new perspectives and sites for experimenting with original medical theories.
Such imaginative experimentation became most visible at moments of crisis or novelty in American medicine, such as the 1790s yellow fever epidemics, the global cholera pandemics, and the discovery of anesthesia, when conventional wisdom and standard practice failed to produce satisfying answers to pressing questions. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, health research and practice relied on a broader complex of knowing, in which imagination often worked with and alongside observation, experience, and empirical research. In reframing the historical relationship between literature and health, The Medical Imagination provides a usable past for contemporary conversations about the role of the imagination—and the humanities more broadly—in health research and practice today. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)
"TEXTURING THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES: A MANIFESTO”
Co-authored with David Weimer.
Forthcoming in PMLA.
“The Medical imagination”
"TOUCHING THE SCARLET LETTER: WHAT DISABILITY HISTORY CAN TEACH US ABOUT LITERATURE”
Forthcoming in American Literature (March 2020).
"The Gothic Origins of Global Health" - American Literature
Read the full text of the final proof here.
Global health traces its origins back to a single moment in 1854 when John Snow stopped cholera with a map. It is a nice story, but it’s a myth, a fantasy of empiricism. The modern global health approach did begin with the nineteenth-century, worldwide cholera pandemics, but cartography was not the principal form associated with this paradigm; it was the gothic. Turning back to the mid-nineteenth-century pandemics, this essay explores the contours of an emergent global health approach on both sides of the Atlantic. It demonstrates why the gothic was the form through which this approach was narrated, how the form worked, and the effects of the genre on popular and medical knowledge. Contemporary global health has been reorganized around scientific empiricism, but elements of its gothic history remain. I conclude by suggesting the value of recuperating these gothic origins for global health today. (September 2017)