Conference Agenda

Lunch Session 1A: Roundtable Digital Methods in Medical History. Reflections from a Research Project on Religion and Ideology in Nineteenth Century Medicine
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
12:00pm - 12:45pm

Session Chair: Prof. Kaat Wils, KU Leuven


Digital methods in medical history. Reflections from a research project on religion and ideology in 19th-century medicine

Chair(s): Wils, Kaat (KU Leuven, Belgium)

Presenter(s): Goyens, Michèle (Quantitative Lexicology and Variational Linguistics Unit, KU Leuven, Belgium), Leclercq, Valérie (Centre Interdisciplinaire d’Etudes des Religions et de la Laïcité, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium), Lemmers, Frédéric (National Library of Belgium (KBR))

The sprawl of digital heritage in combination with the proliferation of data-mining has extended the historian’s toolkit considerably. Instead of forging narratives based on intimate knowledge of a limited amount of sources, historians nowadays often mine large collections to extract patterns. This panel discusses the challenges of the digitization of 19th-century medical journals and the use of digital techniques to study the role and development of medical concepts and ideas in the 19th century.

Medical journals played a pivotal role in 19th-century medicine. In these journals, professionals shared, discussed and developed ideas by writing meeting reports, academic articles and reviews. Because of the technical nature of the medical discussions in these journals and the sheer quantity of the published texts, it is difficult to get a grip on historically evolving medical concepts, ideas and arguments by means of familiar close reading methods. In order to overcome such difficulties, digital methods can be used to distillate relevant passages in a large corpus and to analyze the used terminology both within these passages in detail and across the entirety of the text corpus.

This roundtable is built around an interdisciplinary project IMPRESS (2017-2021) which involves researchers from the National Library of Belgium (KBR), the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and KU Leuven. This project entails the digitization of three major Belgian medical journals, their online publication on the KBR Digital Library ( and the use of digital methods to study the role of religion and ideology in these journals. We focus on the methodological choices that were made and discuss the extent to which text mining has allowed us to identify and evaluate expressions of ideology in a corpus of scientific texts. In laying bare the difficulties and outcomes of both the digitization and the digital analysis, we intend to contribute to the current debate on the gains and limitations of digital methods in the humanities. While acknowledging the many interpretative interventions in preparing searches and qualifying outcomes, the use of the digital tools has allowed us to reach more sophisticated research results than the exclusive use of non-digital methods would have.