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Adventures in the Archives: The Living Past

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The stereotype of historians isolated in archives with dusty papers and dim lighting has more than a grain of truth to it. Granted, my archive experiences have been more ice cold and brightly lit than dank, but the isolation can be striking. I’ve spent entire days immersed more in the past than in the world around me. History work can be lonely and leave you feeling cut off from the present. This can actually be useful when it means closer connection with historical actors and their worlds. But you run the risk of getting cut off from everything — both the past and the present — during the at-times mind-numbing search for that single piece of valuable evidence within reams of irrelevant material.

After hours of paging through letters, newspaper clippings, and magazine articles unrelated to my own project, I start seeing paper rather than people. At these times, it is easy to forget that the “useless” sources are snippets of people’s lives. Even if only momentarily, they intersected with the lives of one or many individuals — people with full, rich lives outside of my own area of research interest. Because zoning out like this over so many scraps of paper can be such an issue, it’s both welcoming and jarring when a source wrenches me out of that funk: when it forces me to come face-to-face with the lived experience of the past.

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This has happened to me more than once, but one time sticks in my mind for its sheer power. I’d spent hours poring over issue after issue of a popular family health magazine. The American Medical Association started publishing Hygeia in 1923 to educate people about personal health and renamed it Today’s Health in 1950. I wanted any story, advertisement, or advice column dealing with pregnancy planning or genetics. The indexes had failed me, and so I’d moved on to flipping as quickly as possible through every issue published over a period of decades.

It started some time after my fourth cup of stale coffee and hundredth ad for “Hartman Baby Carriages,” “Hygeia nursing bottles,” “Thum” thumb sucking deterrent, evaporated milk, and various cookware. I stumbled across a story that snapped me back out of that space where the people dissolved into the background and only my topic and my analysis mattered.

The story title, “My ‘RH Factor’ Baby,” caught my eye because, well, it had the word “baby” in it, which was a flag. But more importantly, it promised to be a personal account, something I desperately hoped to find. Much of my work depends on doctors’ accounts. I’m left to infer patient and client voices from often sterile case reports, and so I’m thrilled when I find anything that offers a glimpse into a person’s life from their own point of view. But I had no idea how much this story would move me.

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In this story, Elizabeth Sturns recounted her heart-wrenching story of losing a child shortly after birth to a hemolytic disease related to Rh antigens (what makes your blood “positive” or “negative”). The Rh factor excited human geneticists in the 1940s because it drew attention — and funding — to the field. Research eventually led to therapies that helped save children’s lives and prevent the condition in the first place. Sturns’ story dealt partly with this, so it’s where my brain initially filed it.[1]

But the story turned out to be much more important for what it reminded me about how we should think about and analyze the past (and the present). Elizabeth Sturns wrote:

“No one but a mother can really understand the feeling of closeness one has to the little unborn child in the womb, whose flutters and kicks prove it is getting stronger all the time in preparation for its advent into this world. So no one but a mother can truly appreciate the empty, hopeless feeling which possessed me for many months after my little girl was born [...] just three months too soon. She weighed one pound 12 ounces, and lived 30 minutes. Her very tininess even for her prematurity indicated her development had not gone well, and I tried to console myself that it was more merciful for her not to live than to survive if she would not have been strong and healthy.”[2]

Every time I read this it knocks me back a little. Sturns’ eloquent and powerful story reminds us of what is so obvious that it can easily be forgotten: the past is populated with real, complex people, with a diversity of experiences. As historians it’s our job to try to unearth these experiences, the factors that shaped them, and to make historical claims about them. But often we shy away from the raw emotion, the felt experiences, of the past. We take shelter in analysis.

This isn’t to say that analysis is unimportant. We still need to read sources with a critical eye. And there are some good reasons for our hesitation to consider emotion. After all, emotion is pretty opaque, especially with decades or centuries of distance. Who’s to say that “happy” in 2014 means the same thing as “happy” in 1950 or 1750 or 1050? Sturns comes right out and says this: “No one but a mother can really understand the feeling.” But though it may be impossible to completely understand what Sturns or others felt, her story serves as a reminder to me that I have to try. It may be hard to pin down, but we need to keep these lived realities of the past front and center in order to do justice to the historical actors that breathe life into our historical analysis.

I never would have found this story using the index, but I’m incredibly glad I did and that Sturns shared her story so many years ago. I’m curious to hear others’ reactions to this story and whether you’ve have similar experiences.

NOTES AND SOURCES

1. R. A. Fisher, “The Rhesus Factor a Study in Scientific Method,” American Scientist 35, no. 1 (January 1, 1947): 95–113; Sheldon C. Reed, “A Short History of Human Genetics in the USA,” American Journal of Medical Genetics 3 (1979): 288; A. W. F Edwards, “R. A. Fisher’s 1943 Unravelling of the Rhesus Blood-Group System,” Genetics 175, no. 2 (February 1, 2007): 471–476.

2. Elizabeth Daws Sturns, “My “RH Factor” Baby,” Hygeia 27 (July 1949): 489. (All images are also from this issue of Hygeia.)

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Did you try to find the mother?

    April 17, 2014
    • I have not. I’ve certainly wanted to, but as a historian (without any training in oral history) I’ve been uncomfortable reaching out like this. I hope to do better. My primary point of hesitation is related to the concern that bdcollins refers to, that it is potentially exploitative and manipulative. This is a challenge that I think deserves more discussion, especially among historians.

      April 17, 2014
  2. bdcollins #

    I also encounter mothers’ descriptions of their children’s death and it is very emotionally draining. I worry that in my dissertation I may be presenting it in an emotionally manipulative way, but I also want to honor and represent what was an important experience to them.

    April 17, 2014
    • I share those exact concerns. And it’s made doubly challenging by the need to balance honoring these intensely personal experiences (letting stories speak for themselves) and critically analyzing them. Sometimes I find it difficult to do both. This would be a really valuable discussion to continue.

      April 17, 2014
  3. Thanks for getting in touch via Twitter about this. I know what you mean about the endless search for personal experiences & women’s voices, although I confess I always thought it would be much easier in your period vs. my time period.

    I find it fascinating that she writes of her RH baby as being born “just three months too soon,” and very much as a daughter rather than as a fetus or a patient. Even now, a 3-months preemie is still an extremely premature child with no guarantees–it’s interesting to know that some women in 1950 thought about her daughter in the ways that seem familiar to those of us in the post-Roe, post-ultrasound era think about pregnancy & children.

    April 17, 2014
    • Thanks so much for your comments, and for pointing out her interesting use of “just.” It is really interesting to see how complicated the language of embryo/fetus/baby goes, and how much it seems to vary from person to person.

      I also thought it would be easier to find personal experiences and women’s voices (and those of clients/patients in general) for my time period. But it doesn’t seem to really play out that way. I run into similar problems: People who decided records weren’t worth keeping, and people whose voices were never recorded in the first place. But I also run into somewhat different problems: regulations that stipulate particular types of records be automatically destroyed after a short period of time, privacy rules that lock records for 100 years after their creation. A geneticist, Peter S. Harper, who wrote one of the first histories of genetics said he preferred to leave the task to historians, but that he noticed his colleagues throwing away their papers and gradually passing away without anything being recorded. And those are the “dominant” voices, not to mention those that are already hard to access. But then, a lot of these new rules exist to protect people from exploitation, so it’s a worthwhile challenge.

      April 17, 2014
  4. Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    Here is a very interesting article written by my friend and colleague Adam Turner, a fellow historian, about some of the emotional discoveries that one can make in dusty old archives. History is not just a recounting of things that happened in the past–it’s putting yourself into the lives and minds of real people who really lived. Great work, Adam!

    April 21, 2014
    • Sean, thanks so much for your kind words, and for sharing this! It means a lot, and I’m glad you liked the post.

      April 21, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Adventures in the Archives: Searching for the Past | Nursing Clio
  2. “Blossoms of Hope”: Our Cultural History of Pregnancy and Infant Loss and Grief | Nursing Clio

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