Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries

The earliest extant Chinese mathematical writings include two types of components of particular interest for our discussion on manuals and handbooks. On the one hand, there are mathematical problems that often evoke tasks carried out by officials working in the imperial bureaucracy. On the other hand, there are mathematical “procedures,” or “algorithms” in today’s parlance, to solve such problems. This description fits most of the mathematical books composed in China until the seventh century. Continue reading “Reading and (Re-)​Classifying Canonical Instructions of the Past: Commentaries on ‘The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Procedures’ from the 3rd to the 13th Centuries”

Medical Knowledge and the Manual Production of Casebook-Based Handbooks

In the 1850s, a physician at St. Bartholomew Hospital in London struggling with an unclear case of fever with affection of the bowels might have wanted to find information about the patient’s prognosis or an alternative medical treatment. Likewise, a medical student preparing a case for presentation to the hospital society, might have wanted further information about typhus fever, namely, its course, average prognosis, possible complications, and treatment. Both doctor and student would probably visit the library of the hospital’s “Medical College” to find comparable cases and case reports in voluminous bound casebooks. Continue reading “Medical Knowledge and the Manual Production of Casebook-Based Handbooks”

Mental Disorders, Collective Observation, and the International Classification of Diseases

Over four decades ago, the distinguished epidemiological psychiatrist Norman Sartorius wrote, “the history of psychiatric classification is in fact a history of psychiatry.”[1] During the 1960s and 1970s, Sartorius had been at the center of research by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the international classification and prevalence of mental disorders. During that era, the organization significantly transformed its classificatory manual, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD), releasing the ICD–9 in 1977. The ICD is the standard international manual for recording mortality and morbidity data for insurance and epidemiological purposes. WHO is currently in the final stages of completing its latest update to the text, ICD–11. Continue reading “Mental Disorders, Collective Observation, and the International Classification of Diseases”

Maurice H. Dobb’s ‘Wages’: A Journey Ahead of the Standardization of Labor Economics

The Making of a Cambridge Handbook

In 1928, the Cambridge academic Marxist Maurice Dobb published a short textbook on wages that underwent five revised editions by 1959, many reprints, and diverse translations, including into Japanese (1931), Arabic (1957), Italian (1974), and Spanish (1986). As historians of economics, our naive idea was that it would be possible to observe the transformation of economic knowledge about wages by observing changes both in the book’s contents and in the textbook genre. On the whole, however, our study of the making of Wages and its diffusion let us do less and more than that. Continue reading “Maurice H. Dobb’s ‘Wages’: A Journey Ahead of the Standardization of Labor Economics”

Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science

When I told my colleagues in Germany and the United States where I was heading for archival research two years ago, people looked at me completely baffled, or even in compassion. Some also laughed. Historians of science, they seemed to imply, travel to Ivy League universities for archival research, to Oxbridge, Paris, or Berlin. What could there be of interest in the library of an agricultural school in corn country? Continue reading “Who Has Been to Ames, Iowa? Or: Handbooks as an Unappreciated Dimension of Science”

How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe

When it comes to “how-to” books, alchemy poses particular problems. Medieval alchemical treatises claimed to offer detailed advice on a host of spectacular products and processes, ranging from the Philosophers’ Stone, a transmuting agent capable of turning base metals into gold and silver, to medicinal elixirs that offered cures for otherwise intractable diseases, as well as the prospect of renewed youth and an extended life span. Yet, at least to modern eyes, no amount of “know-how” could teach anyone how to make these things—they are impossible practices, which no alchemist can ever have successfully carried out, nor described in accurate, replicable instructions. What, then, is the function of a “manual” of alchemy? Continue reading “How to Sublime Mercury: Reading Like a Philosopher in Medieval Europe”

Timing the Textbook: Capitalism, Development, and Western Knowledge in the Nineteenth-Century

Circa 1835, following a survey of recent Dutch publications in shogunal collections, the Japanese physician Koseki San’ei (1787–1839) concluded that among the strengths of new European approaches to education, a proactive attitude toward the power of cheap pedagogical print was paramount. European countries, Koseki declared, “produce affordable and easy-to-understand books on all arts and sciences, give them to impoverished scholars, and by doing so verse them in the arts and sciences.” “It is through this,” he maintained, “that they foster talent.”[1] Continue reading “Timing the Textbook: Capitalism, Development, and Western Knowledge in the Nineteenth-Century”