This web site is an ongoing experiment in “doing history,” an expression coined by Jack Hexter (1910-1996) and the title of a book of essays he published the year after I took his graduate historiography course during the spring semester, 1970. I was a compliant student, but hardly a quick study of the Hexter method. It was my first semester at Yale, and unlike the two other chaps in the course (for whom Hexter was their major professor in Early Modern Europe), I had no idea what I had signed up for.
By historiography, Hexter meant the rhetoric of history–the craft of writing about the past while systematically studying it–not the history of history writing, a sub-set of intellectual history (my anticipated major field). At the first meeting, he handed each of us a packet of documents pertaining to a dispute that occurred in 1604 during the first Parliamentary session in the reign of James I of England. Hexter had done the research and selected the evidence; our task was to interpret the documents he had provided, to sort out what we thought had happened, and to start writing. The preliminary essay was a solo affair. Thereafter, Hexter encouraged us to work together. We would meet regularly on our own to establish new lines of research, share whatever we found, and peer-review drafts of the historical narrative due at the end of the semester. Throughout, Hexter served as facilitator and guide to various theoretical aspects of writing history. The course ended. I did ok, just ok. Frankly, I was ecstatic at simply having survived a course with Jack Hexter.
But as the years passed, my gratitude for his patience with me increased in tandem with my growing understanding of what I never completely grasped during the course itself. I have emulated Hexter’s exacting attention to elements of the craft of writing, as well as those of Garrett Mattingly, the historian he also very much admired, in my own experiments with historical narration. In addition, I adapted Hexter’s History Workshop model when teaching historiography at Michigan State University.
The content of this web site reflects these two historians’ continuing influence on me: Historical narratives about the Broad Street pump episode–“the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in this kingdom [England],” according to John Snow; and my unpacking of the historiography of each of those narratives (although my notion of historiography in this instance is more expansive than Hexter’s, including the search, location, and selection of evidence). The web site is an homage to Hexter and Mattingly, as well as the hundreds of students at Michigan State University who survived PVJ’s “my way or the highway” History Workshops on historiography.
I/me/my in the previous paragraphs = Peter Vinten-Johansen. I spent my entire academic career (after receiving my PhD from Yale University in 1975) at Michigan State University. In the Department of History, I primarily taught Modern European Intellectual History (MSU), Historiography, and the History of Medicine and Health Care. In addition, I held adjunct status in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and (for several years) the Department of Teacher Education. I co-founded a summer Overseas Study course, Medical Ethics and History in London, and taught it seven times between 1986 and 2001. From 1997 until 2003, I was the leader of an interdisciplinary team of faculty members at MSU that, with assistance from the medical historian David Zuck in London, produced Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine: A Life of John Snow.
In 2006 I retired from Michigan State University, and the following year moved with my wife, Betty, to the mountains of north Georgia. I have maintained my connection to MSU by serving as content manager of The John Snow Archive & Research Companion, hosted by MATRIX, the Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences. That site uses KORA, this site is WordPress; so I thank Alicia Sheill and her team of programmers for adding a WordPress directory for me to use on this project, and thanks to Kassie Powell at MATRIX for guiding me through the features of a website program that’s new to me. Thanks, as well, to Betty Vinten-Johansen, David Zuck, and Leo Heska for advice and suggestions throughout the construction process.
The banner is an altered detail from the Frontage Plan that showed deaths from cholera in parts of the parishes of St. James, Westminster and St. Anne, Soho (GBoH, July 1855); I have erased the bars indicating how many people died at each residence number. Please note that such a map showing current house numbers did not exist until the third week of September 1854.