Anne Harrington: Almost a Miracle: Reflections on a Medical Archive at the Boundaries of Skepticism and Experience
Anne Harrington is the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. She is also Director of Undergraduate Studies in the History of Science, Faculty Dean of an undergraduate residential community called Pforzheimer House, in which capacity she also serves as Chair of the Harvard Faculty Dean community. She has written widely in the history of psychiatry, brain science and medical practice, and is the author of four books, including Reenchanted Science, The Cure Within, and, most recently, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (2019).
Anne Harrington is the Society for the Social History of Medicine keynote speaker of this conference.
Almost a Miracle: Reflections on a Medical Archive at the Boundaries of Skepticism and Experience
Harvard University, United States of America
The Lourdes Medical Archive in southern France must be the most unusual medical archive in the world. It contains reports of miraculous healings that do not just consist of testimonies of the faithful, but that have all also been extensively reviewed and glossed by medical authorities, both Catholic and otherwise. The view of the medical committees who assess all the reports is that inexplicable (and potentially miraculous) recoveries are possible, but exceedingly rare. For this reason, of the more than 8,000 dossiers in the Lourdes archive, only 70 have survived the skeptical scrutiny of both medicine and theology. What, though, about the 7,930 other files– all the unheralded, ambiguous, rejected or stalled cases of alleged medical miracles? We should not assume that a “failed” miracle is by definition an uninteresting miracle. On the contrary, the huge archive of unsanctioned miracles stored in the archives of Lourdes has a great deal to teach us about ways that ordinary people in the modern world may struggle to make sense of their intimate experiences of suffering, fear, faith and grace. At the same time, these same dossiers cast fascinating light on what it may be like for an ordinary person to undergo a process of tough-minded evaluation that was historically designed by the Church to privilege expert testimony over personal stories.