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Honors Tutorial College

Research Spotlight: Hannah Abrahamson

Hannah Abrahamson researches the formative years of healthcare in 16th and 17th century Spain
Ben Postlethwait | Oct 20, 2014
16th Century Spanish Medical Document
16th Century Spanish Medical Document

Original Reporting by Madison Koenig

     Healthcare is a hot-button issue today. It’s debated in political groups, discussed in economics courses, and expanded in scientific laboratories. It’s easy to see that healthcare is about much more than just the health of a patient. However, this is not a new development

     Dr. Michele Clouse, a professor in history, and her research apprentice Hannah Abrahamson, a senior studying Spanish in the Honors Tutorial College, spent the summer exploring healthcare in 16th and 17th century Spain, an extremely formative period for medicine. The Spanish government was just starting to codify healthcare practices and policies, instead of leaving them up to physicians or, in some cases, the Catholic Church. 

     Although many think of medicine as scientific and straightforward, Clouse said that in contemporary and historical times, it is important to consider culture’s influence on how medicine is practiced.

     “Medicine is a branch of science, yet it is culturally constructed,” she explained.  Even today, patients’ expectations can play a role in how physicians treat them. In order to better understand what expectations patients had in early modern Spain, Clouse and Abrahamson examined the documents from cases when those expectations were not met and resulted in malpractice lawsuits.

     To begin to study these cases, however, they first had to learn how to read them.  Abrahamson spent the first few weeks of her apprenticeship focusing on palaeography, the study of historical handwriting. Not only is the handwriting difficult to read, Abrahamson said, comparing early modern Spanish to contemporary Spanish is like comparing Shakespearian English to the English that we speak every day.

     “One of the things that happens in these cases is that, like in modern legalese, they have their own formulas and language, and we haven’t quite figured it out yet,” Clouse explained. 

     Clouse compared this mismatch of expectations in these malpractice documents to “an early modern version of WebMD.” Patients were highly influenced by the ideas of folk medicine and often did not trust that physicians knew what was best for a patient’s health. Other issues of class, gender, and race also influenced these cases.  Medical practitioners were university-educated men, a relatively small portion of the population, and they tended to serve a wealthier client base.

     “I think that we assume that suing for malpractice is a relatively modern idea, but it’s clear from these cases that it’s not,” said Clouse.  By looking at malpractice suits, Clouse and Abrahamson explored the limits of proper medical care.  Patients had a strong influence during this formative period for medicine.  Healthcare was procured through legal agreements between patients or their families and the medical practitioner, in which payment was exchanged not for treatment, but explicitly for a cure.  If the practitioner could not produce a cure, then the patient or his or her family would not have to pay.    

     Clouse hopes to pull these initial cases together in a paper that she and Abrahamson will submit to a conference or a journal, such as the John Hopkins Bulletin of History of Medicine, where she has been published previously. 


Clouse and Abrahamson
Clouse and Abrahamson
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