Books or Novels (Including Poetry)

Historians use many kinds of published
 books as sources. Two types are especially important on this site: novels and
 medical literature.

When books are intended to be fictional or imaginary, we must try and determine which aspects are added to embellish the story or poem, and which may be drawn from real life. “Closet dramas,” like Amy Redpath’s plays, were never intended to be performed in public, but were instead put on in a home, likely for an audience of friends and family. Such plays thus allow us to re-create an important social custom that no longer exists.

Works of literature, including poetry, can communicate information beyond familial relations and social customs. Sometimes the plot of a novel appears to be drawn from real life. Lily Dougall’s novel The Summit House Mystery appears to combine details of the Redpath case with the famous Lizzie Borden double-murder case of 1892. How much did Lily Dougall know about the Redpath tragedy?

Novelists also often describe the physical settings of their stories in minute detail in order to make their works appear more realistic or believable. In Montreal humorist Stephen Leacock’s work, for example, the carefully chosen character names and descriptions of sites transform Montreal’s ultra-serious Square Mile district into a humorous place.

Some novels are so powerful that they shape the way a place is understood, even if that portrayal is biased. Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes of 1945 was written decades after the golden era of Montreal’s Square Mile, but it still shaped the way English-French relations were understood by generations of Canadians. That the book won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1945 tells us that it was highly valued in its time.

Historians also use scientific articles and medical textbooks to understand how doctors conceive and explain health and sickness. At the beginning of the twentieth century, medicine was slowly becoming a scientific practice, where decisions about how to treat patients were based on systematic theories and laboratory studies. Medical literature was essential to the creation of this scientific medicine.

While treatises on medicine have a long history, the first textbooks on modern medicine did not appear until the end of the nineteenth century. Canadian physician William Osler’s The Principles and Practice of Medicine, first published in 1892, was the authoritative medical textbook until World War II. Medical journals, too, were used in education, but also allowed practitioners to keep abreast of the latest developments in treatment. Medical information published in specialist textbooks that might deal in categories arranged according to a specific disease (tuberculosis), body part (lungs) or physiology (respiratory system).

While medicine may seem to be an objective science that studies unchanging facts, medical ideas really do change over time. And at any moment in time, a complete explanation of the meaning, symptoms and treatment of an illness may involve multiple, even conflicting explanations. In the medical literature, specific conditions—that today doctors mostly believe are firmly based in physiological processes—were variously described as biological, social or mental. Osler’s writings on tuberculosis, for example, written after the discovery of the tubercle bacillus, still point to social and climatic factors in the evolution of the disease.

Finally, it is important to note that the new university-based education system that made extensive use of textbooks and scientific articles created the modern physician and surgeon. But this literature also established new ways of thinking about disease and illness; in other words, they established the modern patient, too.