The Author’s Corner with Myra Glenn

dr harriot kezia hunt

Myra Glenn is a Professor of American History at Elmira College. This interview is based on her new book, Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate (University of Massachusetts Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: I was astonished that there was no book length monograph on a woman who was a pioneering female physician, health reformer, and woman’s rights advocate in nineteenth-century America. Once I began reading her 1856 autobiography Glances and Glimpses as well as her lectures and speeches I became fascinated with her and knew I had to be her biographer.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: My book argues that Hunt warrants extensive study because she offers a rare, fascinating case study of how a single woman from a working-class Boston home became a successful professional and renowned reformer in nineteenth-century America. This text also uses Hunt’s richly detailed life narrative, Glances and Glimpses (1856), to explore how women described and interpreted their lives in antebellum autobiographies.

JF: Why do we need to read Dr. Harriot Kezia Hunt: Nineteenth-Century Physician and Woman’s Rights Advocate?

MG: My book examines Hunt’s establishment of a flourishing medical practice in Boston in the mid-1830s. Convinced that many of her patients’ physical maladies were rooted in their spiritual and mental anguish, Hunt became renowned for listening to women’s troubles, or “heart histories,” and counseling them. I also discuss Hunt’s unsuccessful efforts to attend lectures at Harvard’s medical school in 1847 and 1850 and her emergence as a leading woman’s rights advocate. She became the first woman in Massachusetts to publicly protest the injustice of taxing propertied women like herself while denying them the right to vote. Her annual petitions declaring “no taxation without representation” were widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the Northeast and Midwest. Hunt was also prominent in the annual woman’s rights conventions of the 1850s where she championed health reform, female doctors, higher education for women, and their enfranchisement.

Study of Hunt’s life also illuminates how religion promoted reform activism in antebellum America. I discuss how the Hunt family’s conversion to Universalism encouraged Harriot to challenge established gender roles and spurred her commitment to the woman’s rights struggle. I also explore how Hunt’s conversion to the ideas of the Swedish mystic Immanuel Swedenborg as well as her friendship with leading antebellum feminists, especially Sarah Grimké, led her to challenge patriarchal power within mainstream Protestant churches.

Finally, my book analyzes Hunt’s 1856 autobiography entitled Glances and Glimpses. At a time when few women wrote life narratives Hunt offered a richly detailed and revealing work. Her text was the first autobiography published by a leading antebellum feminist and also by a female physician.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MG: My father, a waiter in Brooklyn and immigrant from Cuba, was always a voracious reader of American history and instilled in me a love of both history and politics. Even when I was in high school I knew that I wanted to study how the past shapes our present and future.

JF: What is your next project?

MG: I plan to investigate how a group of leading antislavery and woman’s rights activists in antebellum America coped with old age and the challenges of facing illness, the death of loved ones, and their own mortality. This would be my fifth and probably last book.

JF: Thanks, Myra!

Homesickness in the Continental Army

ThacherOver at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell tells the story of Dr. James Thacher at the Battle of Springfield, New Jersey in June 1780.  As someone who has written a bit about homesickness, I was attracted to this part of Bell’s post (and Thacher’s diary):

As for other soldiers, Thacher noted another curious condition: 

Our troops in camp are in general healthy, but we are troubled with many perplexing instances of indisposition, occasioned by absence from home, called by Dr. [William] Cullen nostalgia, or home sickness. This complaint is frequent among the militia, and recruits from New England. They become dull and melancholy, with loss of appetite, restless nights, and great weakness. In some instances they become so hypochondriacal as to be proper subjects for the hospital. This disease is in many instances cured by the raillery of the old soldiers, but is generally suspended by a constant and active engagement of the mind, as by the drill exercise, camp discipline, and by uncommon anxiety, occasioned by the prospect of a battle.

As at summer camp, staying busy helped alleviate homesickness. As did the prospect of being hit, or even nearly hit, with a cannon ball.

Read the entire post here.  I am hoping to include Thacher’s account of the Revolutionary War in Springfield in my current project on New Jersey and the American Revolution.

Smallpox: The Video Game

Smallpox.  No disease in history has taken more lives.  Sam Kean, writing at Humanities, describes its devastating influence on the history of the world and the vaccine that triumphed over its deadly power.  He also informs us of a group of humanists, led by historian Lisa Rosner at Stockton College (NJ), who are working with a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities to create a video game, “Pox in the City.” The role-playing game will bring the 18th and 19th-century wars over the use of the smallpox vaccine to general audiences.

Here is a taste:

The game immerses players in early 1800s Edinburgh,a prestigious medical center and a major front in winning acceptance for vaccines. It offers the chance to play one of three roles: a doctor trying to open a vaccine clinic; an immigrant worker trying to avoid smallpox; or, unusually, a smallpox virus trying to infect the masses. To recreate classic Edinburgh neighborhoods, Rosner ’s team will draw on contemporary images from the archives of the College of Physicians in Philadelphia and from visits to Edinburgh. She hopes that players can someday even, say, duck into an eating hall and hear people singing Robert Burns’s poems. For now, her team is concentrating on building the basic levels for the character of Doctor Alexander Robertson.

The real Alexander Robertson wrote an outstanding thesis on vaccine science in 1799, says Rosner. After that, he disappears from the historical record, but “he’s absolutely the kind of young physician who would have taken up vaccination in an entrepreneurial way,” she adds, therefore making him an appropriate character. Rosner drew on diaries of Edinburgh doctors and other primary sources to flesh out the milieu in which a Robertson would have worked.

At its most basic level, the game requires Robertson to persuade people to try vaccines, and he has to tailor his pitch to whomever he encounters. With a young Irish washerwoman, Robertson might do well to drop her priest’s name. For a striving merchant, Robertson could establish his scientific credentials, or mention that vaccination is all the rage in London. Other aspects of game play are more like quests, with multiple goals and subgoals along the way. For instance, one proposed subplot involving a corrupt doctor might require wheedling information from a drunken bar patron, haggling with journalists, and sneaking into the crooked doctor ’s office to gather evidence.

Check out the “Pox in the City” blog to see how the development of the game is progressing.