by Jessica Baron, History of Science Society
This interview is the first in a series conducted on behalf of HSS@Work, a group devoted to improving opportunities and support for historians of science (and related scholars) interested in employment options beyond the academy.
Dr. Lindsay Fitzharris is an author and medical historian who received a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology from Oxford University. She is the creator of the popular pre-modern surgery blog, “The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice,” and recently received the prestigious PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for her book The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017). She hosts the YouTube video series Under the Knife and recently signed a contract for her second book “on the birth of plastic surgery told through the incredible story of Harold Gillies, the pioneering and eccentric surgeon who first united art and medicine to address the horrific injures that resulted from World War I.” Below she discusses popular writing, historians engaging with the public, and her path away from the tenure track.
JB: In some of your interviews you mention being “burned out” after finishing your PhD at Oxford and moving directly into your postdoc at UCL. At what point did you decide to pursue a career in writing and public education as opposed to the (less and less traditional) tenure-track job?
LF: It’s true that I had become intellectually burned out during my postdoc. During that time, I started a blog called The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice. It was only meant to be a hobby project. I wanted to flex my creative muscles and fall back in love with history again by telling the stories that genuinely excited me. But the blog took on a life of its own, and before I knew it, I was dedicating most of my time to public engagement. I realized then that an academic career was not for me. The problem is that in order to become a full-time freelance writer, you first need a platform. So although I knew that my time in academia was limited, I also knew that I couldn’t just leave without having a plan in place. I spent years blogging and engaging with the public about medical history on various social media platforms. I also began a YouTube series called Under the Knife. Eventually, I was able to attract a literary agent, and from there I was able to sell my first commercial book.
Many people I’ve talked to who write for a non-expert audience have been accused of “bastardizing” the discipline in some way. What’s your response to that sort of judgement?
I think there is a misconception that writing popular history is easier than writing academic history. Both have their challenges, and just because a person can write one doesn’t necessarily mean that same person can write the other. I’m a storyteller first and foremost, and an historian second. I don’t apologize for this. Unfortunately, some academics don’t see a value in what I do. But the past doesn’t belong to scholars alone. It belongs to everyone. My hope is that I can bridge the gap between academia and popular history, and open up new and interesting subjects to a curious public.
What do you think other historians of science and medicine can be doing to promote the discipline to non-experts?
Get involved! It’s easy to hurl rocks from the outside, but if you’re truly interested in raising awareness about your discipline, you have to put yourself out there. Start a blog. Become a historical consultant on a TV series or movie. Pitch articles to popular magazines and newspapers. Collaborate with museum curators on an exhibition. There are plenty of ways to engage the public.
You’re highly involved with the “good death” or “death positive” movement along with a group of writers, morticians, artists, scientists, and activists and have been called a “deathExpert.” What do you contribute to this movement as an historian (or why do you think it’s important to have an historian involved)?
Caitlin Doughty, founder of The Order of the Good Death, has brought together an incredible community of writers, morticians, artists, scientists, and activists who engage with the public on matters of death and dying. As a medical historian, I try to offer historical context. What constituted a “good death” in the past? When did the process of dying become medicalized? Why were doctors largely absent from the bedside of the dying for centuries? I believe that this context can help people understand how we got to where we are today.
Much of what you present has a sensational element with lots of blood and gore and screaming and pain—how do you balance entertainment with good historical information?
This has always been a challenge, and I suspect it’ll continue to be a challenge throughout my career. By its nature, medical history can be gruesome. I don’t feel that I’m doing the doctors and patients justice if I hold back from describing what it was really like in the past. At the same time, I don’t want to be insensitive, and it’s always important to remember that these were real people. It’s certainly a delicate balance—one that I don’t always get right!
You mention in your Guardian interview that we don’t talk enough about failure, but your big career break came on the back of a less-than-ideal time in your life. What’s your best piece of advice for the struggling grad student or early careerist mired in feelings of failure?
My book came at a low point in my life. My ex-husband had abruptly ended our 10-year relationship and disappeared on me. As a result, I suddenly found myself facing deportation from a country I had called home for many years. My passport was confiscated, and I wasn’t allowed to work while my immigration situation was being decided. My ex-husband’s lawyers painted a picture of me as a failed writer, which was easy to believe since I had no money, no job prospects, and no right to remain in my home. During those eight excruciating months, I worked on a proposal. And with the support of friends and family who would not let me give up on my dreams (not to mention an excellent agent!), I was able to sell the book. It’s now being translated into twelve different languages, and I’m heading to LA soon to discuss the possible movie adaptation of the book.
Failure is essential to success. It informs us, guides us, and pushes us in directions we couldn’t have imagined going in the first place.