A diverting weekend on Twitter, at least if you’re a medical historian. It all started when John Gallagher (@earlymodernjohn) wondered:
A fine question, which several Twitterstorians pondered. Elaine Chalus (@EHChalus) suggested that this was a gendered concern, since:
Bowels have never featured much in the women’s letters/corresp I’ve read over the years. ‘Face ache’ though does.
I had never paid much attention to the bowel movements of the patients I study, but had a memory that women discussed bowels frequently in a medical context. But what might my Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online have to offer by way of insight?
First, that I do not have a category for tracing patients’ discussions about their excretion. That said, “bowels”, “stomach”, “diarrhoea”, “constipation”, “stool”, “urination” and “urine” all appear as key terms.
Second, after a quick search for “bowels”, “stool” and “diarrhoea” (sixty-eight out of 713 medical letters), I found that men were indeed much more interested in bowel movements overall. Twenty-six of these letters involved women: most were written by medical practitioners (15) or by male relatives (6). The remainder involved women writing on behalf of other females (2) or male relatives (3). No women wrote about their own bowel movements. In contrast, sixteen men wrote about their own and eighteen wrote about other sufferers’ (eleven males and six females). Medical practitioners wrote for an equal number of male and female patients.
What surprised me most is how few letters discuss this issue. Perhaps there might be more references in the 164 letters mentioning “stomach”. However, it could also reflect the categories chosen for the database and a further choice on the part of individual researchers not to input this data because it is so common. As with any database, decisions must always be made.
Only, I’m left with a lingering question… Would it be meaningful to be able to trace the number of references to bowel movements in the eighteenth century?