Public Health in the Public’s Hands

The content in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie was not revolutionary. However, the structure, a collectivization of all subjects human knowledge into 28 volumes, was revolutionary. Diderot was not the first to publish in such a format, but his Encyclopédie became the most well-circulated and read. To ensure that he would reach a broader audience, Diderot wrote in French, which was known as the language of the common people, instead of the usual Latin. Additionally, the Anatomie section of the book was one of the first medical images available to people. Because of this effort, the Encyclopédie was banned initially by the Catholic Church in an attempt to suppress the sharing of academic knowledge.

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An image from the Anatomie section, one of the first of its kind.

The internet provides a parallel to printed encyclopedias today, giving common users greater access to a wide variety of topics. Therefore, our group will create a website that appeals to high school and college students interested in access to public health knowledge throughout the ages. The information will be in short blog post format to best interest the audience. Additionally, users will be able to suggest topics for future posts as well as write their own that will be reviewed and then hopefully published on our blog. This will ensure the creation of a community of users that is able to interact with and learn from one another.

The age of the Internet comes with many benefits, but a serious negative is that access to too much information can confuse searchers. This is especially prevalent today with the advent of websites such as Wikipedia or, in the medical field specifically, WebMD. The blog would provide a source of accurate information about a concentrated topic.

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Our website will focus on the access that people have had to public health information over time. We will divide our areas of focus into three categories of time: before Diderot’s time (pre-18th century), Diderot’s time, and post-Diderot’s time/today. We have already begun the process of finding articles and books through the Fondren library and its online resources. We hope to teach the evolution of the public’s access to health information while at the same time adding to the conversation by making this information easily accessible.

Diderot’s Anatomie: What Do We Know About Our Health?

The archive our project covers is Diderot’s Anatomie, one part of Diderot’s Encyclopédie written between 1751 and 1772 in France. Diderot’s Anatomie represents a turning point in health literacy among the common French. Rather than being written in Latin, the language of the well-educated and wealthy, Anatomie was written in French, the language of the common people. Before Anatomie, the common person did not have access to knowledge about their own health.

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Image from Anatomie (http://artflux.uchicago.edu)

We will open up our archive by placing within the context of history, documenting the public’s awareness of health before, during, and after Anatomie was published. We have chosen to place Anatomie in the context of history because of the precedent set by Encyclopédie in common access to knowledge. For our research, we will primarily books and articles that describe the public’s awareness of health from various eras in history. When researching for information relating to modern public health literacy, we will likely turn to websites such as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic website. Such sources provide insight into how drastically health literacy has changed since the Enlightenment. Whereas knowledge was once scarce, the average American now has virtually unlimited amounts of information through which to sift. Our project will explore the implications of a universal access to health knowledge and its relationship with historical documents such as Encyclopédia.

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Image from Anatomie (http://artflux.uchicago.edu)

To honor Diderot’s step toward commonplace public health literacy, my group’s project will revolve around the idea of accessible knowledge to all. In order to emulate Diderot’s impact, we have chosen to create a website that will document history and news relevant to the public’s access to health knowledge. We decided that a website would best represent the goal of accessibility because of the integration of the internet into our everyday lives. Whereas the common people of 18th century France shared the French language, many of today’s “common people” have access to the resources the internet provides. Furthermore, our targeted audience for our website will be high school and college students in an academic setting as a resource for research and general interest. The structure of our project as a website will be especially impactful for this audience because of technology’s integration into to everyday lives of today’s young adults. Our audience will benefit from being placed within the context of history, as an active part of the public’s evolving health literacy.