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.

The Encyclopédie: the 18th Century’s Internet

Our group’s project is to assess the importance of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie on health and medicine. More specifically, we are concerned about the anatomy section. Because the section is in French, our group decided to focus less on the actual book and more on its consequences. The purpose of our project is to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the Encyclopédie‘s democratization of medical knowledge and relate our findings to our current age in which the internet plays an important role. We intend to use a website to showcase our findings because a website is the most common way people find information today. This relates to our archival material because in the 18th Century, people turned to books for the same purpose.

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Anatomie made it easy for people to understand anatomy.

We want to target doctors and public officials in charge of dealing with public health. By informing our audience about the positive and negative aspects about making knowledge more accessible, we can help them make more effective choices regarding policy. For example, doctors and officials need to understand that posting warnings about disease on the internet can inform a society, but excessive or poorly thought out warnings can incite panic. By linking today’s choices to historical events, officials will have a better sense of what the best decision is and will do a better job of keeping society healthy.

 

Our project led us to our research topic because the Encyclopédie is one of the first instances in which common people gained access to knowledge that was previously reserved for the elite. Naturally, such a drastic change in the status quo was met with resistance, which led to the Encyclopédie’s ban. Today, misinformation is rampant because of the ease with which information can spread, and this complicates our understanding of public health. Instead of being a top-down system in which medical knowledge flows from researchers and scholars, the internet acts as a highway for information. For public health officials, finding a balance between the historical and current models of information transfer is of critical importance in promoting health.

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Sites like WebMD make it easy to self-diagnose. However,such websites also allow people making an incorrect diagnosis.E

Because we are not using the anatomy section directly, our group will be researching the political, social, and health aspects of societies both in the 18th Century and in current society. We will be using books and articles that deal with specific time periods and issues so that we can get the details of each of these topics.