Representing and re-defining expert knowledge for the layman. Self-help medical manuals in late 19th century America


This paper analyses a corpus (over 1 million words) of three self-help medical handbooks published in the US in the latter quarter of the 19th century, R.V. Pierce’s The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser (1883), M.L. Byrn’s The Mystery of Medicine Explained (1887), and Gunn and Jordan’s Newest Revised Physician (1887). It aims to explore the discursive construction of medical knowledge and of the medical profession in the period, combining discourse analysis and corpus linguistics. The popularity of these manuals has to be seen within the context of medical care at a time when, in spite of the advances made in the course of the 19th century, the status of the medical profession was still unstable. Initially the focus of the study is on the representation of the medical profession. In this respect, the analysis testifies to an approach to traditional medical expertise which is essentially ambivalent, taking its distance from abstract medicine and quackery alike, while at the same time promoting a new approach based on different, more modern principles. The focus then shifts to the episteme of the medical science as represented in the works under investigation. The construction of selected epistemically relevant notions – knowledge, theory/ies, experience, evidence, and observation – is discussed relying on concordance lines in order to retrieve and examine all the contexts where they occur. The results of the analysis indicate a shift in the epistemological approach to knowledge, with theory and suppositions being complemented by experience, evidence and facts, and a representation of knowledge as a tool for empowerment, in line with the increasing democratisation of medicine characterising the period.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22390359v29p41

Keywords: medical knowledge; self-help medical handbooks; domestic medicine manuals; 19th century America; medical profession; democratisation of medicine


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