My "laudable pus": when history gets personal

My left leg was propped up on the edge of the gurney as the ER doc sliced open the abscess on my calf to release the pus he needed for a bacterial culture. He started to chatting with me deflect the tension of the moment. As he grabbed various vials and swabbed the bleeding wound he asked me why I was traveling alone in Denver. My reply, “I’m getting a PhD, doing my dissertation on 19th century medical history in the Intermountain West. I’ll be working in archives at the Historical Society this week.”

In nearly every MH podcast my interviewees discuss their personal connections to their historical research. It makes sense, for example, that Laurel Ulrich‘s next project will be about Utah Mormon women, given her own LDS heritage. Jeff Wasserstrom, whose recent book of essays explores intersections of Chinese history and contemporary society, details recent travel experiences in Shanghai cafes and bookstores.

My own dissertation research about 19th century medical history is certainly fueled by many of my experiences as a medical patient. Most recently, for the past four months I’ve battled a mysterious antibiotic-resistant infection in my left leg (the jury is still out about whether the infection is MRSA or an atypical mycobacterium–just today I had an MRI scan and we hope to draw yet another wound culture by the end of the week). I can’t help but draw parallels between my own rather gruesome ailment and the “suppurating wounds” full of “laudable pus” that I’ve read about in postbellum American medical journals. This situation truly came to head a few weeks ago while I was in Denver on a research trip and my infection recurred; I became a patient in one of the very hospitals that I aimed to study during my stint in town.

In pondering my intimate relationship with my research topic, I’ve considered the writings of ethnographers Ruth Behar and Greg Sarris. Weaving their own stories with their histories adds a weight to their work that moves beyond a story frozen in time, captured by an objective observer. It seems more than coincidence that the writers’ lives are so closely tied to those of their subjects. As Behar writes, “You don’t choose to write the books you write, any more than you choose your mother, your father, your brother, or your comadre” (Translated Woman, xi). Am I to imagine that the angel of history dropped down from the sky and offered me this gift of a story, as an offering to this poor graduate student struggling to prove the significance of her obscure research topic? I’m tempted to mirror some of Behar and Sarris’ techniques in my own work, but both of these researchers are collecting oral histories and interact with their subjects–historians who study the 19th century (or earlier eras) don’t have that luxury. Such historians tend to bookend their research with their personal reflections, as do Bill Cronon and Martha Hodes.

Even while I recognize that my personal experience informs my interactions with my sources at every level–the questions I bring to the text and my interpretation/filtration of those materials–convention dictates that I keep my distance from my writing. Yet from reading bestselling accounts like Six of Six Million, I know that the researcher’s process to uncover the facts of their story can be a compelling tale in and of itself. Of course, I’ve been told many times that those are the types of books that historians write after tenure.

Still, as I write my dissertation I aim to blur some of the traditional boundaries of the historical genre–adding literary elements and experimenting with the traditional textual form. Though at this point it seems too far outside of the sphere of the dissertation to inject my personal experiences anywhere except in the Intro (gotta wait for that magical tenure, first), I’m still infusing my text with my own morbid fascination for medical detail. Because how can I write a compelling vignette about battlefield surgery without injecting my freaky curiosity about the details of arterial ligature, techniques of amputation, and moist wound dressings? And, given that I may well be writing my next chapter during the hours I’ll be whiling away hooked up to an antibiotic IV drip, such details hit painfully close to home (although honestly I’m hoping for maggot therapy to debride the infected tissue–wouldn’t that be a fun story to include in the intro to my first book?).


Antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA have a history, one that begins in the nineteenth century with the professionalization and routinization of allopathic medical practice. The use of antibiotics as a panacea for nearly any ailment became part of the performative “practice” of medicine by the late twentieth century–such antibiotics confidently prescribed by white-coated board-certified physicians who had little inkling of the consequences. Certainly they weren’t thinking of people like me, who have complex medical histories involving numerous necessary doses of antibiotics, and who are subsequently more susceptible to extra-resistant infections.

Thus, my fascination with medical history is profoundly personal. It is an attempt to understand the terrain of my own body. It’s what I thought about for the hours I was recently an inpatient in my university’s hospital, where I was told I couldn’t bring any personal belongings (not even a book-the horror) because of theft problems. So I was a book-less, laptop-less, podcast-less patient with not much more to consider than the view out the window (a back alley), the pain in my leg (tooth-gritting), and my research objectives.* I thought a lot about what it meant to write “professional” history and what it meant to tell stories. The paranoid hypochondriac part of me also worried whether I would ever get better and get on with my work, even as I realized that my own medical experiences aren’t just tangential to my work, they are at the heart of it. And, in one fashion or another, they will be a part of everything I write.

*Actually, I also thought a lot about Foucault, which I found one can’t help but contemplate in a situtation like mine–wondering whether one is in the “clinic” or the “prison.” But that, of course, is another story. And I should also note that there _was_ a television in my corner of the ward, but I never turned it on because I haven’t watched TV in a few decades and I wasn’t about to start just because I was hospitalized, for crying out loud.

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3 Responses to My "laudable pus": when history gets personal

  1. Adam Arenson says:

    Eek! Um, thanks? for sharing what you’ve faced.

    As you say, most historians are encouraged to mention such personal ties at the beginning or end of a book, but that connection is nevertheless of utmost importance to many if not most readers, from search committee members to the airport browser. It not only establishes expertise, it also demonstrates empathy with the stories you will tell. That helps readers connect emotionally and, I think, remember your history more intensely.

  2. Pingback: My Suppurating Wounds: when history gets personal « The Edge of the American West

  3. When you mentioned you couldn’t bring any personal items it reminded how sterile the hospital environment is. I’m not really meaning sterile in the sense of not contaminated, just the act of being in a hospital, I believe, can make you feel worse.