Dr Felix Rietmann (UniFR, Medical Humanities) was recently awarded an Ambizione grant for his “Raising a Well-Grown Child: Media and Material Cultures of Child Health in the Early Nineteenth Century,” which will run until 2025.
This project, which Dr Rietmann leads with a small team, is the first ever historical study of the influence and interaction of popular print media on understandings of health and illness in childhood in German-speaking Europe. It is situated at the intersection of the history of medicine, history of childhood and pedagogy, and media history.
It is a good thing, then, that Dr Rietmann's research profile be particularly - or, should one say, impressively - interdisciplinary: he successfully completed, among other things, a medical degree and then a doctorate in Medicine at the Charite-Universitätsmedizin in Berlin, before “collecting” a further two Master's degrees in History and History of Science, a Graduate Certificate in Media and Modernity, and finally, in 2018, a(nother) doctorate, this time a PhD in History of Science and Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities from the University of Princeton. This interest in bridging the Humanities and Medicine continues to be a hallmark of his academic activity, as he is not content to lead this Ambizione research, but also finds time in his remaining 10% employment to lecture at the Institut für Medizingeschichte at the University of Bern, and to be a Research Associate at the CHUV's Institut des Humanités en Médecine.
Dr Rietmann's project delves into the impact that the boom of interest into children's health in the print media of the first half of the nineteenth century had on the understanding of children's wellbeing and illness, both in the medical field and in society at large. At a time when we see the move of expert discussions into the public sphere, e.g. about an epidemic, and how such discussions inform both societal policies and medical discourse, it seems evident that the democratisation of the discourse on children's health should have had a major cultural and medical impact. Yet this is still a very under-researched question, a lack that Dr Rietmann's project will redress.
Why choose the first half of the nineteenth century as the timeframe for this research? Simply because this period can boast some important shifts in medicine and the conception of children that promises to yield most interesting results. Indeed, this is a time when the commercial market evolves and people realise the untapped potential of children, both as consumers and subjects of consumption. This quickly leads to the appearance of numerous periodicals aimed at children, or about children's health and education. So much so that in 1805 Die Abend-Zeitung can claim that “we are now at a point where we almost have as many educators and educational books as children.” This boom in literature is also accompanied with the commercialisation of many playthings and medico-pedagogical devices at the time, material objects that Dr Rietmann will also take into account in his project. The period is also a transitional one in the history of medicine, as the latter becomes increasingly professionalized and institutionalized, and new practices are introduced that directly concern children: the period sees the introduction of classes on childhood diseases in the medical curriculum and the concomitant creation of the first university professorships in pediatrics, as well as the foundation of the first pediatric institutions.
One may think that the popularisation of the discourse on children's health and education may have led to a “dumbing down” of the discourse when it was taken up in cheap print, but, far from relaying popular knowledge and old wives' tales, Dr Rietmann's study demonstrates that, sometimes at least, magazines discussed some of the state-of-the-art medical research. A Pfenning-Magazin (literally, Penny Magazine) article of 1833, for instance, deals with the health of young women in boarding schools by drawing from research published that same year by John Forbes, and from a 1793 medical volume by German physician Professor Sömmering. In this instance, the magazine adopted the role of a transmitter of medical knowledge, all the while drawing on its capacities to represent it in an entertaining way. The popular discourse however did not always agree with but could also actively challenge existing medical ideas. This is for instance the case of the baby walker, which was ill-reputed in medical circles as potentially hindering natural development, whereas it was presented as “the next big thing” in a journal such as the Illustrirte Zeitung, hailing it in a short 1843 blurb as a great way to prevent “crippled legs” (right).
Dr Rietmann's study does much more than trace the impact of popular media on the conception of child health in the German public sphere, at a specific time: it adopts a novel methodology drawn from media studies, research on material culture, and the history of medicine, to understand a crucial transitional period in the development of pediatrics, pedagogy, and child psychiatry.
Thinking of applying for Ambizione funding? The next deadline for application will be on 1 November 2022. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for any question, advice, or support you might need during the application process!
Are you interested in reading more about Dr Rietmann's research? You will find below a link to his grant page on the SNSF repository, and another to his UNIFR page, where you can browse his list of publications:
 “Daß die Erziehungs-Bücher im demselben Maße [wie Erziehungsanstalten] vermehrt werden mußten, war natürlich, und so stehen wir denn endlich auf dem Punkte, wo wir beinahe nicht weniger Erzieher und Erziehungsschriften als lebendige Kinder haben“ (Anonymous, 1805, 19).
 Images: 1. “Pedagogy,” Fliegende Blätter 1, no. 17 (1844/1845): 134; 2. Baby-walker, Illustrirte Zeitung, July 22, 1843, 64.