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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
When the alchemist-priest Antonio Neri published his L’Arte Vetraria in 1612, the universe of codified knowledge could finally include a major work entirely devoted to glassmaking. Although the Florentine friar was by no means the first to provide instructions on how to make glass (recipe texts are known from the second millennium BCE), never before had the effort been so comprehensive and successful.
As of my writing on April 12, 2018, there are 24,506 known or suspected human genes out of roughly 3 billion base pairs in the reference sequence of the human genome.1 While the bulk of these were identified during the course of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which ran from 1990–2003, a majority of the 5,000 or so with a well-characterized clinical phenotype—a genetic trait visible in human anatomy and physiology with consequences for human disease manifest above the cellular level—were cataloged beginning in the 1960s, long before genetic sequencing was possible. Medical geneticists worked to identify heritable traits in study populations that manifested unambiguously in family lineages. They set up clinics around the world and established sections in academic hospitals.2 In a discipline that was still marginal to mainstream medicine and tainted by its incomplete severance from eugenics, breaking apart old categories and multiplying new ones became a legitimation strategy, one that required physicians and counselors across the country to be on the same page.