Welcome to the Project: Building the database

Welcome to the first blog post for our major new project “The Medical World of Early Modern England, Wales and Ireland, c. 1500-c.1799”, based here at Exeter. The blog will be used to share project news, report on findings and also to share interesting snippets of information as they arise. We are also hoping to attract guest contributors to provide insights on various aspects of early modern medicine.

What, firstly, are the aims of this project? The main objective is relatively straightforward; to assemble a database containing information relating to as many early modern medical practitioners as it is possible within its five-year span. This database will allow an exciting new prosoprographical study to be made of practice across early modern Britain. It will, for example, give a broad picture of the geographical and temporal spread of practitioners. Did their numbers increase? Are there ‘pockets’ of practice, or were they spread evenly across the country. Likewise, under what titles can they be found – e.g. physicians, doctors, apothecaries, surgeons, and so on? What might this reveal about patterns of medical nomenclature and self-fashioning?

But also central is the construction of individual biographies of practitioners. Aside from their medical activities, what can we learn about their roles and positions within their communities? Did medical practitioners form networks, correspond or work together, whether in medicine or in other ways. On occasion, for example, doctors or apothecaries actedas signatories for the will of a colleague, or might carry out an inventory of their premises. Apprenticeship records can yield much information about where medical training took place, where masters found their apprentices and so on. In many ways there is a world of medical practice yet to discover. By building up and charting these links, we hope to create a much more detailed map of medical practice than has previously been possible, with the eventual aim of a major new monograph exploring early modern medical provision.

The project is based on an existing database/calendar of medical practitioners collected over several years by Dr Peter Elmer, and involving exhaustive searches of a wide range of archives from official sources, institutions and county archives. This impressive document already contains between 15000 and 18000 names.

After the achievement of a major grant from the Wellcome Trust, the project formally commenced in September 2012 and the first stage has been the conceptualisation, and building of a database, capable of accepting both the size of the data already collected, and a different format. This work is now underway and, it is hoped, a working model should be up and running by the end of this year. Archival work has already commenced and this is already throwing up interesting results. For Wales, for example, taking into account Peter Elmer’s and Alun Withey’s exisiting data and adding finds from the first two months of searching, the list of Welsh practitioners has grown from 27 pages to 68 pages…and this for a country which is generally regarded as having few doctors!

In many ways this project is timely. Over the years much historical attention has focused on practitioners, often in the form of either single biographies of individuals, studies of groups within institutions or, more recently, local quantitative studies. This project, however, aims to raise new questions about the shape of medical practice in early modern Britain by undertaking a much broader quantititive study than has hirtherto been attempted. Its approach is multi-regional, taking into account the various constituent parts of the British Isles, with research fellows working on individual areas to maximise the concentration upon collections of archival sources in, say, Wales or Ireland, as well as across England.

There are important questions to raise and perceptions to challenge, perhaps most notably the enduring belief in the relative lack of practitioners in this period. In fact, as the more than 15000 names already collected is beginning to suggest, early modern Britain was in fact replete with practitioners, from Physicians to doctors, apothecaries to chemists, barbers to surgeons and quacks to empiricks. It might one day be possible to argue that seventeenth-century Britain contained as many people practising medicine as today. At the very least, it already seems that a reappraisal of the map of medical practice is needed.

Please visit our site and blog regularly, and let us know if there is anything you would like to see included, or if you would like to find out more about what we do.

2 thoughts on “Welcome to the Project: Building the database

    • Dear Harriet,
      Many thanks for this and apologies for the problematic email address; I’ve updated it now. Your information sounds very interesting indeed. If you wanted to contact me directly, my email address is A.Withey@exeter.ac.uk

      All best wishes
      Alun Withey

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