Louis Agassiz (1807–1873) was a young student at the University of Munich when Johann von Spix and Carl Friedrich von Martius returned from their expedition to Brazil. Among the many items and specimens the German naturalists brought back were fish. The methodology they had followed on their journey through what was then part of the Portuguese Empire was typical of naturalists in the field: They observed, collected, and in some cases classified. Then, back in Europe, they studied the amassed material. Their journey through the exuberant and unfamiliar natural environment had lasted three years (1817–1820). In this geographical and temporal context, the fish and marine species were rarities that few scientists could address with authority within the framework of European natural history. The observant naturalists were nonetheless able to classify species unknown in Europe while also learning about these species’ natural environments.
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.
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?