Category Archives: historiography

Bioethics in Historical Perspective

During the last month Australia and Thailand have had to confront the implications of a terrible medical dilemma, when news broke of ‘Baby Gammy’, the Downs syndrome twin left behind by an Australian couple who paid a Thai woman to carry their child. When the mother found she was having twins, she allegedly refused to abort the pregnancy because of her Buddhist beliefs. The genetic parents subsequently took the ‘good twin’, a girl, back to Australia with them, leaving the boy behind with a mother too poor to pay for his medical treatment. A lot of this is still ‘alleged’ – but just when it seemed the story couldn’t get any worse, it turned out that the new father had formerly been convicted of child abuse. Both Thailand and Australia have been hastily rushing through new regulations on child surrogacy.

Many medical issues have an ethical dimension. Some, like surrogacy, are self-evidently vexed. Others are subtler.

In the current Ebola epidemic, for instance, why does an American patient get flown home for treatment that is not available for Africans? What are the ethics of administering treatment that is still experimental? And why is the language in which the disease is discussed so charged? There has been a lot of talk about how uneducated Africans don’t obey the scientists when they are told to abandon their traditional burial rites and not touch Ebola victims, or wash the bodies of their dead relatives. Yet the said American patient subsequently credited Jesus, not the scientists, for his recovery.

Sarah Ferber, Bioethics in Historical Perspective

It is against this background that I’ve recently been reading Sarah Ferber’s Bioethics in Historical Perspective (Palgrave, 2013).  As Sarah says in her introduction, bioethics is a political minefield, starting with just what the discipline is and who ‘owns’ it – doctors? philosophers? policy makers? Historians would not be the first port of call for anyone thinking of the ethics of medicine, but putting medical debates in a historical context is very valuable, and this book does that well.

The book starts with Sarah confronting her first bioethical issue:

As a 17-year-old I went to work over the summer in a Catholic psychiatric hospital [in the days of R.D.Laing and the anti-psychiatry movement]. My job as it turned out – and as I had half hoped – brought me close to the medical treatment of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT or ‘shock treatment’). My specific task was to hold anaesthetized patients in a stable position while they underwent the treatment and then monitor them afterwards: I lasted a full thirty minutes. The kindly mother-superior asked me to pause with her in the chapel on the way out so she could ‘put a bit of religion’ into me. This appears not to have worked. [ix-x]

After this challenging opening, the book becomes what it is designed to be: a textbook for bioethics courses. How grateful we should all be that such courses exist, especially for medical and other students who will go out to deliver health care after graduation.

Anyone who quotes George Orwell’s essay on the English language is my friend for life, and I really loved the chapter dealing with language, and also the fact that this chapter was so early in the book, and sets the scene for what comes later. Is organ transplantation ‘a gift of life’, or ‘a trade in spare parts’, for instance? In different circumstances, of course, it is both. I was reminded here of work that has been done on blood, which is donated free in some countries, but sold in others.

In a series of subsequent chapters Sarah looks at various issues from relatively recent history. I won’t elaborate on each of them, for the titles are self-explanatory: ‘Euthanasia, the Nazi Analogy and the Slippery Slope’; ‘Heredity, Genes and Reproductive Politics’; ‘Human Experimentation’; ‘Thalidomide’.

Despite the complexity of much of this material, Sarah writes with great clarity. The only slight irony, I thought, was that given Orwell is so critical of the passive mode, after her introduction she writes always as an omnipresent narrator, and I wondered whether she could have inserted herself into the debate just a little. This is probably a necessary evil of the textbook format.

What I particularly like about this book is its moderate tone. Sarah is dealing with such fraught issues, and there’s such possibility for hysteria in many of those topics, but she takes a cool and thoughtful perspective on them. (Much cooler and more thoughtful than my deliberately emotional lead paragraph – sorry Sarah!)

The following sentences seem to sum up the way she thinks and writes:

What is most difficult, when confronting either abhorrent or dubious practice, is to try to find a way to accommodate them analytically, even if one rejects them as a matter of instinct. Nothing is ameliorated solely by condemnation or distancing. Most unethical practices lie on some kind of continuum with normal aspirations.’ (127)

That’s terrific: clear, cool, non-judgmental and I’m pleased to report that though hysteria usually sells much better, this thoughtful, balanced account is selling rather well so far. Let’s hope her insights have an impact on policy decisions.

Note: Sarah is a personal friend of mine, which is why I refer to her as Sarah, not Ferber, throughout. We’ve discussed this book over the years, and I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements page, so I am probably not the most objective reviewer – but hey, my blog, my rules!

There is an interview with Sarah about the book on YouTube here.

This review is written as a contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

Book thieves

Less than 20 years ago, archaeologists discovered a library in the Athenian Agora dating from about 100AD. The Library of Pantainos was named for its dedicator, Titus Flavius Pantainos, and was recognized as a library mainly because the library rules have survived:

Image of the Rules of the library

No book is to be taken out because we have sworn an oath. [The library] is to be open from the first hour until the sixth.

No borrowing, and restricted library hours. I can relate to that, even though I would find the papyrus scrolls unfamiliar – and as a woman I wouldn’t be allowed inside anyway.

As I’ve said many times, I love libraries and librarians. There’s something universally welcoming about a library, a familiarity in the layout, the catalogues, the reading matter, regardless of time and place. Of course there are superficial differences. A friend has just posted some pictures on Facebook of the library he is using in India at the moment: paper catalogues and an outside loo. When I first worked in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I had to swear the following:

I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library.

Fires were a problem in libraries based on papyrus, vellum or paper, but the clay tablets in the library of Ashurbanipal survived because they were burnt, and baked hard as a result. The wax tablets didn’t do so well.

Libraries let the past talk to the present, and free access to libraries is precious, at risk now that so many databases are accessible only by costly subscription – though digitization is costly, so what is the solution?

There are advantages, though, in a system where books and journal articles are increasingly available online, because although not everyone may be able to walk in off the street to find material, as they once did in the days before usernames and passwords, at least for university students, it’s a level playing field.

It hasn’t always been so. I studied history at the University of Queensland in the late 1960s. Several years ahead of me was another honours student who stole books and journal articles from the library. In those days, of course, nothing was online. Books took months to order from overseas, there was no electronic security, and photocopying was primitive and expensive.

This student took out books hidden in her portable typewriter case, and cut out journal articles from the bound volumes. It took the library years to track down what had gone missing – though we students, travelling in her wake, soon learned through bitter experience to avoid any topic that she had worked on in previous years. I discovered this, to my cost, when I wrote an essay on the historiography of Marxism, only to find the key articles in my bibliography had been removed with a razor blade.

Why did she do it? Sometimes people steal from libraries because of the intrinsic value of the material, as I have discussed here, but this wasn’t true in this case. Part of the reason must surely have been the extreme competitiveness of the honours year. In those days, examiners awarded degrees according to a normal distribution – the notorious ‘bell-shaped curve’ – which meant (or so we all believed) that only a certain number of first class degrees would be awarded each year, regardless of the merit of the student cohort. In a zero sum game, depriving others of essential reading matter improved her chances.

Another factor was that there was no mechanism for copying material other than copying it out by hand – or typing it, for we few, mainly female students, who knew how to type. So the temptation to cut out and steal was always there.

My late colleague, Denis Murphy, came across another example at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. He was reading newspapers for his PhD on T.J.Ryan, who was Queensland Premier during World War I. He found a lot of columns that had been clipped out sometime earlier – and found there was a pattern. They related to constitutional matters, and many of the missing columns were quoted at length in H.V.Evatt, The King and His Dominion Governors (1936).

Was Evatt responsible for these thefts? Did a research assistant do the dirty deed – in which case, why did Evatt never question the source of the clippings? There may be some innocent explanation, but it’s a curious pattern, all the same.

It’s also something of a political scandal, because at the time he was writing The King and His Dominion Governors, Evatt was a High Court Judge. He was later the Federal Attorney General in the Curtin and Chifley Labor Governments, before becoming Minister for External Affairs and the (very poor) Opposition Leader. Libraries, from Athens to the present, should be all about sharing and equal access, so it’s rather shocking when somebody breaches that trust, especially when it’s such an eminent person as Australia’s chief law officer.

Just the other day, I was told of a similar case involving a Cabinet Minister in our present Federal Government. It’s gossip, it’s hearsay, and it’s not my story to tell anyway. But I hope it’s not true. At least with the rise of the internet, students have equal access to the journals they need for their studies. They don’t even have to present themselves in the Agora between the first and the sixth hour.

Reflections on the Australian Historical Association Conference

I’ve just spent 5 days at the Australian Historical Association conference, held this year at the University of Queensland, and I’m all conferenced out.

AHA conference header

I won’t attempt to summarise a conference with so many papers, so many parallel sessions, so many evening events that I didn’t get to. For those who are interested, the abstracts are here and almost single-handed, Yvonne Perkins @perkinsy tweeted the conference.

Instead, here are a few of my general impressions on the state of history in Australia today that I’ve picked up by osmosis during the last week.

  1. I hope the conference was a success. The numbers were good, though I gather there were more postgraduates and fewer senior historians than usual. This has financial implications as postgraduates get in at a concessional rate. (So do I, as ‘unwaged’ – which was Autocorrected to ‘unwanted’ on my iPad. Sigh). I wonder whether the shortage of senior people reflects workloads. Postgraduates have to present their work to a wider audience, but perhaps tenured staff are just too tired by the end of semester, to spend a week of their precious non-teaching time interstate. Which brings me to –
  1. I’m not a Head of Department, but I was told that the Heads of History meeting was pretty dispiriting. People are tired of battling for funding, tired of shifting goalposts, tired of the economic straighteners in political life. This is true across higher education, of course, but it’s particularly true for the humanities, and historians are even worse hit because –
  1. It is so easy to politicize history, because history, more than most disciplines, is a part of the public conversation. This is both a good and a bad thing. Professor David Armitage from Harvard, whose paper yesterday was a rallying call for greater public engagement by historians, made the point that in Australia, unlike America, history has a place in public discourse. This is great. But it also risks making historical research a hostage to politicians who want to tweak the school curriculum or cherry-pick research projects in their own image.
  1. The overarching theme of the conference was Conflict. Large conferences always choose a big and baggy theme like this, so inclusive that it is almost meaningless. The irony of Conflict, though, is that it bifurcated the conference between aspects of Aboriginal/settler frontier conflict (beloved of the left) and aspects of World Wars (beloved of the right). So that’s all right then. In sheer bloody-mindedness, when confronted with a Theme, I tend to go looking for something entirely different – medieval Irish cooking, say, or the political activities of Caroline Chisholm.
  1. I loved both these papers, and they each had wider things to say about Irish and Australian history. Some papers, though, show the tendency Armitage raised in his paper, ‘to know more and more about less and less’. Many primary sources are now digitized and available (even though many are only accessible through a pay wall) but it’s increasingly hard to get your head around all the secondary sources published on any subject. So PhD theses become ever more specialized in an attempt to cope. Fernand Braudel drafted most of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II while in a German prison during World War II, with only access to a small local library. Without wishing to make years of imprisonment compulsory, there’s something to be said for blocking out the world and its masses of Big Data occasionally.

It was good to see old friends and acquaintances, and to meet in the flesh people I only know through social media. I’ve come away with a list of books I must read, and new ideas I need to think about. Some of them will no doubt find their way to my blog in the future.

It is different going to a conference in your hometown. It’s cheaper to stay at home – but there’s more commuting and less total immersion in the conference experience. There are still husbands and dogs to be fed. In times past, I got to know people best in shared accommodation, or over shared college breakfasts, and I went to all the evening sessions because there was nothing else to do in a strange city. I do miss the conviviality of those days – but I don’t regret the shared bathrooms or the freezing student rooms in mid-winter Melbourne.

How should we deal with racist language?

If you go to iTunes to download a copy of one of Joseph Conrad’s classic novels, you will find it listed under the name The N—— of the Narcissus (1897). Apple’s antennae are very sensitively tuned when it comes to the use of what Americans call ‘the N word’.

There has recently been a controversy over racist terminology at ABC Radio. A sports commentator, Warren Ryan, was suspended for using the racist term ‘old darky’, and has now quit because he refuses to apologize for something that was taken out of context. He says he was quoting from Gone with the Wind. You can read the details here.

As a completely dis-(and un-)interested bystander regarding anything football-related, I know nothing about Ryan, except that in general I think sports commentators should act in a civilized manner and keep their traps shut as much as possible, but the story does raise the issue of how we deal with racist comments that are not our own, but those of another generation. Continue reading

What’s for breakfast?

I’m currently reading the journal of Thomas Otho Travers. He worked for the East India Company in the early 19th century, at one time as private secretary to Sir Stamford Raffles when he was in Java. Raffles is best remembered because he later founded Singapore. The journal is rather frustrating, to be honest, because Tom seems to have written it up only once a month, just giving a summary of any important events during that time. It lacks the immediacy of a daily journal.

The reasons why we keep a diary are very different from the reasons later historians may want to read it. A diary may be a memoir or an aide memoire, a chance to sound off about the boss, or a spiritual solace.

What it never tells you, in my experience, is what the writer had for breakfast. Why should it? Travers’ diary was where he noted down significant or unusual events he needed to remember, or wanted to think through. He had no need to jot down details about his own daily life.

Old Bencoolen 1799

Joseph Constantine Stadler, Fort Marlborough from Old Bencoolen, Sumatra (1799)

And yet I would love to know more about what East India Company servants, and other British traders in the Far East, were having for breakfast in the early 19th century. Continue reading

George Orwell and the English Language

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how bad much academic writing is. There’s nothing new in this. I’m sure people have been complaining about the aridity and complexity of academic writing since Edward Casaubon first put pen to paper in Middlemarch.

All writers, I’m sure, go through a stage where the imperative is to get everything down on the page.  It’s the next stage though – making those pages readable to either a specialist or a general audience (and deciding which one is more important) – that we academics particularly seem to struggle with. Partly, it’s the pressure to publish as quickly as possible, but sometimes there’s a perverse security to be found in woolly prose and arcane jargon that prove we are a part of the group.

A friend yesterday sent me the draft of  an article to read, with an apology that she used to be a better writer before she wrote her PhD.  In fact, she’s still a pretty good writer, with an interesting topic and fascinating source material – but how sad that writing a PhD might have such a stifling effect! And every academic knows, if they are honest, that there’s some truth in what she says. Continue reading

I think Jane Austen is stalking me

I haven’t been writing my blog lately because I’ve been busy writing my book.  At the moment I’m wrestling with chapters 6 and 7.  It’s 1822. Walter has arrived back in Britain, having made a fortune – over £100,000! – in China. I’m trying to set the scene for this transition point, and I keep tripping over Jane Austen.

In many ways, at this point in his life Walter Davidson was a quintessential ‘single man of good fortune…in want of a wife’. It’s a real phenomenon, and one that Jane Austen obviously knew: first, you make your fortune in some far off outpost of empire (or Yorkshire, in the case of the Bingleys), then you return to your local community, or a friend’s community, and shortly afterwards marry an appropriate girl within the extended family circle. Men like this are peppered throughout her novels. Continue reading