Transitioning from Research to Writing

It’s time for another installment of the Grad School Survival Guide.

You’re home from your research year. You’ve been all over the place, and have thousands of photocopies and scans and lots of great material!

So … uh, now what?

This column is going to be one of those ones where I tell you what I wish I had done, rather than emphasize what I did.

What I did was this: I came home, worked another month at my job, quit, went to Mexico for two weeks to visit in-laws for Christmas, came back and started prepping my first adjunct class at a university nearby (not the one where I was working on my Ph.D.). It was the following summer before I even started working with the material I’d brought home and I’ll be honest: my memory isn’t as good as I had hoped it was.

Here’s what I wish I’d done instead.

adult blur business close up
Photo by Nguyen Nguyen on Pexels.com

Don’t worry about writing yet.

We all have this fantasy that we’re going to get off the plane from research and immediately start writing our dissertations. Some of us probably set out for research with the expectation that we were going to get a bunch of stuff written while we were doing research.

In my experience, writing while doing research is minimal, and being able to compose those beautiful paragraphs right after research … let’s just say there’s a reason it takes a while.

In other words: if you’re sitting there thinking that you don’t know where to begin, you’re in the majority. Breathe.

Go through everything you collected

Unless you are an absolute superstar and heavily annotated every document you photocopies and scanned (in which case you don’t really need my advice), you probably did so-so on this.

Even if you did a decent job, you probably did what most of us do: your understanding of what you collected is based on which archive you got it from. Now, obviously you don’t want to forget this because it’s important information that you’ll need, but more than that you’ll want to know what everything you collected says.

In order to get excited about writing, you need to both simultaneously go through all of the stuff you collected in order to synthesize it, and gain a bird’s eye view in order to start seeing the linkages in the material. This sounds tedious (I won’t lie, it can be), but it can also get your brain cells firing up and ready to start composing text.

Here’s where you start.

Whether you use post-it notes, an Excel spreadsheet, the notes and keywords function in Zotero, or some other program and system (I would suggest doing it electronically rather than pen and paper as the search function is going to be a key factor in making this useful), start going through and giving your documents a closer read and collecting useful data.

I suggest that at a minimum you’ll want to track:

  • Names (sender, recipient, subject of the document, any other key personnel you think you might want to search for later)
  • Dates (the date it was authored at a minimum)
  • Places
  • Title (if the document has one)
  • Subject matter — (this doesn’t have to be super detailed: “Letter from H.C. [High Commissioner] to Interior Ministry re: sale of onions in 1917” is fine.)
  • Connections (see below)
  • What I Need (see below)

If you have multi-document PDFs (for example: if you scanned a box or file that all has the same file number and you want to keep them all together), create internal bookmarks for each sub-component so that you can easily locate a document within the larger file. I’ve lost hours scrolling up and down looking for one-page memos lost within a 90 page PDF. You’ll thank yourself for this later.

As you do this, you’ll start to notice trends and connections between documents. This is where you’ll want to go back and add items to your “connections” category — whether it’s “compare to [document reference]” or noting that the other half of the story is contained in a file you found somewhere else, or whatever you need it to do.

I also kept a running note of What I Need–I used this for two purposes. First, I used it to write notes to myself to do a little research in areas that I just didn’t know very much about. If the document referred to an incident or event or person that I didn’t recognize but seemed important, I’d make a note.

I also used it to record articles or books I knew were out there or things I wanted to review (“I know Gallagher discusses this in her book — revisit.”).

The biggest and most important piece of advice I have is this: NEVER EVER TRUST YOURSELF IF YOU FIND YOURSELF SAYING “I’LL REMEMBER THIS.”

You won’t.

Write it down.

Starting the writing process

At some point–hopefully–in all of this, you’ll find yourself with a story you want to tell. Start telling it. Open up a word document, and write it out (don’t forget to cite things!)

At this point, don’t worry about linear writing — none of the chapters in my dissertation were written straight through from beginning to end. Start writing things down as they come to you, and as they interest you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not very good and you’ll never show your adviser — at this stage in the game, what you’ll want to get over is the oppression of the blank document staring back at you from your computer screen.

In the early stages you’ll have a bunch of paragraphs that don’t link together — that’s fine. You’ll have stories that have a beginning and a middle but no end, or an end with no beginning — that’s fine too.

Potters don’t throw a lump of clay down and create beautiful vases immediately — they do a lot of molding and shaping and sometimes if it sucks they smush the clay back into a lump and start over. Writing is the same way.

What you want in this beginning stage is to get a feel for what you have in your documentation and what stories you’re excited to tell right up front. Let the structure of the document form around it. Don’t worry about whether it’s what you set out to write at the beginning–that can all come later.

Believe me, you’ll get plenty of practice in the months to come!

Grad School Survival Guide: The Mental Health Taboo

adult art conceptual dark
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s taken me longer to produce the next post in the grad school survival guide, and there’s a rather simple explanation that I posted about on Twitter.

So, there it is. A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t okay, in the grand scheme of things, and that it was more than just me being bored.

What didn’t surprise me was the number of “Me too” responses I got. In fact, I was prompted to make this admission when a friend, Ian Morris, discussed his own bout with depression on a recent episode of the Abbasid History Podcast (it’s in the last three or four minutes of the episode). I figured if someone as brilliant as Ian could do it, I could too, and maybe if more of us say something, we can begin to normalize discussion about it.

Enough patting myself on the back.

The point, dear readers, is that mental health problems often present themselves in graduate school, and there is nowhere near enough discussion about it nor about what one should do. It’s time to change that.

The following post is not even close to a comprehensive listing of dos and don’ts, but random thoughts based on my own experience.

While mental health issues can hit at pretty much any time, they seem to cluster:

  1. At the beginning of your program
  2. Between the end of coursework and comprehensives
  3. After comprehensives
  4. After the dissertation defense.

What all four of these have in common is that they’re all major changes to the way your life is structured. The first usually involves trying to adjust to the change (especially if you’re returning to academia); the last three involve that feeling of drifting–when you’re going from a very structured, high pressure environment to having very little structure, pressure, or deadlines.

When you get to graduate school, assess the mental health services available to you.

It probably goes without saying that this is best done before you need such services, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that prepared. If you have the opportunity to assess these before you accept an offer of admission, even better (but, again, I’m not that on top of it. I actually thought my institution had a medical school when I enrolled. It doesn’t. Oops.)

Is there a student health center, and does it include mental health services? If there is not, what arrangements exist to address student needs?

Is there a student disabilities office, and if so, are mental disabilities included? (They should be, but policies differ from place to place). As an instructor, I have sent a number of students to the one on my campus because anxiety, depression, and test anxiety were all conditions that “counted,” so to speak.

If you’re a teaching assistant or assistant instructor, are you eligible to use your campus’s employee assistance program? This is a service that students often overlook because they don’t know that they’re eligible. If you’re employed by the university, an EAP can often help you find a counselor who accepts your insurance, which saves you a lot of extra research.

Avoiding Drift

There’s probably a better name for this, but it’s what I call that feeling when you’re suddenly on your own to read for comprehensives, or researching, or writing, and you’ve gone from meeting friends and colleagues on a regular basis with very little effort to being on your own, sometimes in a completely different city, without a support network.

During comprehensives and writing, if you’re stationed in your home base, a reading or writing group can help. Set up a regular meeting with friends or colleagues and discuss what you’ve been up to.

The caveat here is that this is likely to be most helpful if it’s more of a check-in with other people; if the way you’ve structured your group becomes something that requires you to do additional work above and beyond what you’re already doing, it quickly becomes an annoyance that you or your colleagues will start trying to avoid.

For that reason, I was pretty resistant to doing this during the writing stage–I work best on my own, and the idea of adding to my workload by agreeing to read others’ work and offer feedback on a regular basis was just a non-starter for me. If it works for you great, but, again, knowing your own working style will help a lot here.

And, if all else fails, a regular lunch or happy hour date once a week will get you out of your head for a bit. All work and no play only ever boosted Jack Nicholson’s career, and let’s face it: we ain’t Jack.

Self-care on the research year

I’ll discuss the details of my own research year in a forthcoming post, but let me offer the tl;dr version here: I had no funding and crammed it all into six weeks, and I absolutely exhausted myself mentally and physically. I had been in London for almost two weeks before I left my rented flat for a purpose other than going to the grocery or to an archive.

I cannot overemphasize this enough: do not do this to yourself.

While having a set schedule on research leave does help (get up at normal time, be at archives when they open, etc.), I did this six days a week–and that only because everything was closed on Sunday, or I would have done it seven days a week–and I failed to see the signs of burnout until I moved from London to Geneva and just couldn’t deal. I was only in Geneva for eight days … eight miserable days … but the change in routine, operating language (to French, which I can read but not speak), and the massive increase in the cost of everything caused a mental shock that I could barely deal with.

Part of the mistake here was the eight day bit. I wasn’t in Geneva long enough to really have the motivation to do much other than power through. Had I been there longer, I could have put in more effort to meeting people and getting out more. I’m an introvert, so that can be a bit difficult for me.

As it is, I have a very funny (to me) story about the Museum of the Reformation that I may share someday. (“The presentation on predestination is beginning. You don’t want to miss it!”)

If you’re on a fellowship provided by a local institution, you may well find yourself with a cohort of other fish out of water to form a social group with.

Don’t forget the existence of Meetup.org — need to find other expats? There’s probably a group for that.

But again, all work and no play … makes for a very lonely research experience. If you’re in a new place, remember to take time and smell the roses.

Be open and honest

This brings me around to the reason I posted about dealing with depression on Twitter in the first place: a lot of these battles happen behind closed doors, and there is a taboo around speaking about them.

Mental health resources were not discussed at my own graduate student orientation (either of them). It came up in conversation, and I only knew the answer because I was also a full time staff member.

Be open with yourself–this seems kind of self-explanatory, but, honestly, I didn’t really figure out what was going on until a few weeks ago. I’ve been in a funk since May; it’s now July. And, honestly, part of the issue is that my mental issues usually involve anxiety–depression is new, different, and weird to me.

Be open with those who need to know–your adviser (dissertation supervisor, if you’re at that level) should be in the loop.

If you’re still in coursework and don’t feel like having this conversation with multiple instructors, student disability services may be able to help–again, your situation may be different, but at the campus I’ve taught at, part of SDS’s job was to notify instructors formally of these things and we got a lot of training on confidentiality (‘Please do not approach the student in class and say, “SO! I hear you’re suffering from an STI!”‘)

And I’m pushing my own agenda here, but I really do feel like the more we talk about this, the more normalized it’ll become, and we can start moving away from the issue of mental health in graduate school being such a taboo subject.

 

The Research Year: Planning a Workflow

Welcome back to the Grad School Survival Guide!

I have several posts envisioned detailed how to plan your research year, and I’ve decided to start with a couple of posts about what to do before you even leave home or set foot in your first archive.

(Full disclosure: This series will primarily discuss doing archival research; although what I say will be somewhat useful if you do oral history or other kinds of fieldwork, I won’t be targeting those specifically because I have pretty much no experience with them myself).

I’m writing these in no particular order and, in fact, I’m starting with workflow because a couple of friends are already working through this and I thought it would be most useful to them if I started here.

So.

What is a workflow, and why do you need to plan one?

Simply put, a workflow is how you go from this:

file1

to this:

Capture

It’s a bit difficult to see, but the PDF of the document in the top photo with the blue cover is digitally attached to the entry highlighted in the screenshot on the bottom.

(For the record, the top photo was taken at the British National Archives in Kew).

Now, you may be asking yourself: yes, but why do I have to figure this out in advance?

The most important reason to have a workflow figured out is this: you need to determine how you’re going to get those thousands of pages you find in an archive into a usable format and bring them home with you.

1. Photocopying is expensive. Even if it’s just 7 cents a page, if you wind up photocopying a thousand pages (which is *incredibly easy to do*), you’re going to spend some serious bank. Photocopies are also heavy and take up space in your luggage. And then, of course, there’s the question of what happens if they get wet, dropped, spilled, stolen (along with the rest of your luggage), torn, burnt, etc.

2. Photocopying takes time. A number of archives do not have self-service photocopy machines; they have copying services which will do it for you. This comes at both a monetary cost and a time cost, because unless the copyist is literally sitting around with nothing to do, you may not get the copies back the same day.

3. Okay, I’ll scan them. Sure thing! Except that scanning and photocopying are usually two halves of the same coin, performed by the same person at the same copy service that charges per page and probably won’t get to it as fast as you’d like or need.

I’ve been in a couple of dozen archival collections and I’ve seen exactly one with a self-scanner. It was located outside of the special collections room where the material I wanted to scan was kept, and I wasn’t allowed to take the material outside of the room.

4. Scanning has its own challenges. Also … even self-service scanning may not be free. There is a flatbed scanner at the Wellcome Collection in London, which is a research collection that I adore for its cheerful atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff, decently priced cafe with surprisingly good food, and bookstore that I can never get out of without dropping at least £20. In fact, I recommend that anyone passing through London whose research pertains in any way to science or medicine take a look (their catalog is online so you can see in advance what they have).

It is, in fact, the same flatbed scanner that my home university library has, with the same little port to plug in a USB device, and I was delighted to find this out became it meant I wouldn’t have to mess around and figure out how the machine works. I laid out my book, hit “scan” … and nothing happened.

That’s when I saw the little sign saying that there was a cost of £0.10 per scan.

In one of my few moments of actual frustration at Wellcome, I discovered that the cost of the scan has to be paid with a copy card, which can only be purchased in cash. American readers may not see the issue here, so let me clarify that the UK is well on its way to being an entirely cashless society. I had literally not been presented with a cash-only situation during my entire stay in the UK, save for the weekly food market behind Birkbeck College, which had huge signs at the entrance warning people and pointing them to the nearest cashpoint.

I had no cash on me, and as far as I was able to tell there wasn’t an ATM anywhere within the same block as the library. So … yeah.

So, how do I plan a workflow?

What it comes down to is this: you need to have a plan as to how you are going to capture the documents you want, store them securely, and annotate them (this is so, so important), and you need to be comfortable with both the hardware and software that you’ll be using before you leave the house for the first time.

Learning this all in the field wastes your time and money. Most of us are on some sort of research funds (I actually wasn’t–more about that in a future post), meaning that we need to produce while we’re there. Losing a day’s work because you took all of your photos at the wrong ISO and they came out so pixelated as to be unreadable is a risk you don’t want to run (even more if you don’t understand what I just said).

Plan your workflow by working backwards.

Start by asking yourself this question: when you are sitting at your computer writing your dissertation, how do you want to consult your documents? Are you envisioning them as multi-page PDFs with searchable text? As paper copies in front of you (as much as I just pooh-poohed the idea of photocopying, if that’s your thing and you have the funds to support it, go for it)? As something else?

I’ll stop asking you these questions and tell you my personal answer, but I want to emphasize again and again, as I have throughout this entire guide to grad school, that the most important thing is that you devise a system that feels natural to you and that you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to do it the way I did.

I wanted to have PDFs of the documents. I have to admit that I didn’t really think much more through it than that, which became something of an issue when I got to the British Archives and discovered that a file number could refer to a single piece of paper in a folio, or to two massive boxes bound together with twine. This is where creating bookmarks within PDFs became important.

The question for me then became how to capture the documents as digital images and get them into PDF form.

file
Camera, laptop, documents, iPad … check! Turns out this was a bad idea.

I originally did this using my digital camera–the British National Archives has camera mounts for stability–to capture images, which I then transferred to my laptop using Adobe Lightroom where I … you know what, I don’t even remember. I did this on a short research trip and the workflow of getting the images off my camera into Lightroom and thence into a PDF was so utterly cumbersome and time consuming that it literally took me three years to get everything processed.

See, I like to take photos and I know how to use Lightroom … for photos. As it turns out, I did not know the first thing about using Lightroom to create documents from photos.

This is why I insist that you try your workflow at home. Pull that copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire off the shelf and act like it’s a book you need to copy.

I wound up regrouping using a capture device I hadn’t taken seriously: my phone.

A friend pointed me in the direction of a scanner app — Scanner Pro (no, I don’t have this monetized) — that works on the iPhone. There are similar apps for Android and other platforms, and Office365 and I believe Google Docs are jumping into the fray with their own entries.

Scanner Pro isn’t free, but I realized it would pay for itself after about three archival boxes so what the heck.

What I like about it is this: it does a terrific job of capturing print documents, of deskewing them (meaning: if you take a photo of the document at an angle, or the document is crooked in some way, as it might be if it’s bound together, as the British documents are, you can draw a box and it kind of straightens it out; enough for government work anyway), of creating multi-page PDFs, of running OCR (optical character recognition, meaning that it looks for recognizable text within the image–this is what makes the document searchable), and–extremely importantly from my point of view–it uploads the documents to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Docs, and Box are all covered at least).

Hence, by the time I left the archive I would have already uploaded that day’s work into the cloud. Even if my phone got lifted on the tube ride home, I wouldn’t have lost my work.

Now, as I said–I have no vested financial interest in Scanner Pro and could not care less if that’s the app you choose to work with. The important thing is that you pick an app and work with it a bit so that you know how to use it pretty well before you set foot in an archive.

I would suggest that you try out a number of different types of documents in different formats–Goblet of Fire is a big, fat book, so you can see how your program deals with curvy pages. Also try single documents, big type, small type, and if your work is likely to involve images, try those too.

I do not find that Scanner Pro works great with images, but I didn’t have many to contend with and was just as likely to use the actual camera function on my phone for those.

Dealing with the files

Okay, so you now have a system to digitize images into files. Great!

Hey, where are you going? Our work here isn’t done.

In fact, what comes next is VITALLY important.

It’s also incredibly tedious and easy to let slip. Try not to let it.

So, now you have a bunch of digital files … now what?

If you’re like me, your hard drive starts to look like this after a while.

Annotation 2019-06-21 101657

In case you were wondering, there are six hundred files in this folder.

Also in case you were wondering … those are not the original file names that I gave these. I retro-organized this folder almost a year after I collected these articles because I realized that I had no idea what any of them contained. (The format is YYYY-MM-DD because Windows keeps it in order by date that way).

So, first up: two other tools I used.

Annotation 2019-06-21 102218

One is a PDF editor. Scanner Pro does a lot, but sometimes I need a little more boost. Or I needed to OCR a language other than English. Or I wanted to insert bookmarks, as I did with this copy (left) of the testimony to the Milner Commission in 1919, because the file I generated was over two hundred pages long.

Sometimes I leave little digital sticky notes in the documents. As long as it took me to learn how to work paperless, I did eventually master the skill because … did I mention there were six hundred files in that one folder alone?

For this task, I lit on PDF XChange Editor. I’m not linking to it here because they’ve changed the way they sell the software–when I first found it, the PDF Viewer and the PDF Editor were sold together for about half the cost of what they’re selling each individually for now.

If you’re with a university and have access to student pricing, compare with Adobe Acrobat or see if your university offers another solution.

When it came to putting it all together, I am a huge fan and devotee of Zotero, which I will link to because it’s free and fucking fantastic.

Zotero is your digital librarian. There’s a lot of training available online (free), and a lot of universities support it pretty well–it can take a bit to unlock all of the things it can do, but here is why I like it a lot.

Here, for example, is what the Zotero version of the folder I posted above looks like:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103350

I did have to go in and enter the title of each article, the author (if it had one), and date — this is something I would highly recommend that you get into the habit of doing daily. When I would come back to the flat I rented in London for my research stay, I would pour a glass of wine and sit in front of the TV and pick away at this on my laptop. If you let it go, it becomes unwieldy.

But here’s why this is useful. First off, you can include tags on each entry:

Annotation 2019-06-21 103649

Now, if I want to find all of the articles from the Egyptian Gazette that have to do with unemployment demonstrations, I can find them.

Second … if you double click on the entry, it opens the PDF. (I use Box storage as my Zotero storage). It’s all linked right there.

Third, Zotero has plugins for Microsoft Office and OpenOffice (and other things–as it’s open source, people are constantly developing plugins) so that you can generate footnotes and endnotes without having to retype everything.

You can also import records into Zotero directly from your university library’s catalog — again, you don’t have to retype everything.

Seriously, given the number of people I know who had to spend days “fixing” their footnotes prior to submitting the dissertation, I cannot recommend Zotero enough.

But again, it has a learning curve.

Practice, Practice, Practice

This is my last piece of advice here, and it’s one I’ve said over and over: make sure you know how to use your tools. Make sure you’re comfortable with them. If something is a bit squidgy (academic term), google and see if there’s a workaround or how others have dealt with it.

You’ll have enough unanticipated issues to deal with on the road as it is. Having a solid plan as to how you’re going to work with the material you can collect from the beginning will take a lot of the stress off of your shoulders, so that when you get to the archives you can be productive right away.

In future columns on the research year, I’ll discuss how to plan out what you’ll be doing, and how to try to keep sane while you’re on the road. Stay tuned!

Someone else is doing my topic. Is my academic career over??

Another query from a friend – hopefully they won’t mind me using our discussion as the springboard for a post, because they are not the only person I’ve had this conversation with. Not only that, but I, myself, have been talked off this very same ledge more than once.

It goes something like this. You’re past prospectus, you’re getting reading to embark on research–or perhaps you’re mid research, or even writing your dissertation.

At some point, someone mentions to you–or you see an article, or somehow it is brought to your attention that there is another scholar working on a topic similar to yours.

And you go see what they’re doing.

And you realize their topic sounds familiar.

Very familiar.

And you start to feel like you’re having an out of body experience.

And, at some point, you realize it’s been about twenty seconds since you last inhaled.

Because … they’re doing your topic.

And your palms sweat.

If someone else is doing your topic … then your work isn’t original any more! It’s too late to start over now! I can’t start over! Am I doomed? Is it the apocalypse?

No. No, it isn’t. (Okay, in full disclosure: it may be the apocalypse, but this isn’t why.)

Your work is still original, and so is theirs.

Let’s counter the irrationality of panic and insecurity with some cold hard facts.

You have your sources, your framework, and your theory. No one else has this. Even if the other scholar is looking at the exact same topic as you, the two of you are not going to write the same thesis. It’s just not going to happen. (And if it does, this isn’t the column for you. You need to be looking at pieces on plagiarism and academic dishonesty because that just doesn’t happen).

We put such a premium on the doctoral process involving An Original Piece of Research to The Field that we miss the fact that we’re supposed to be entering a conversation with other scholars. Other people are going to comment on your work. You’re building off of a cadre of scholars who are adjacent to your subfield. And, yes, maybe one of them will know something about your topic too. It’s okay! That’s what academia is all about (or it’s supposed to be, anyway).

But this is a hard lesson to come to. For years, whenever I read anything that came a little too close to my own research my face would start to burn and I’d feel like a fraud. My work isn’t new, I’d tell myself. Everyone knows this. I’m just rehashing old territory.

You’ll feel like this a lot when you’re in the midst of research and writing because you’ve spent so long with the material that it feels like common knowledge. Trust me, it isn’t.

I guarantee the other scholar isn’t using your sources. They have stuff you don’t have. You have stuff they don’t have. And even if you come to the exact same conclusion, you’ll have taken different routes to get there, and both of your works will benefit. Don’t see this as a threat to your own work.

Edit: when I posted this on Facebook, a colleague commented that:

A graduate student emailed me freaking out that I had “beat him” to the topic. Since then, we’ve submitted grant applications together to conduct an expansive oral history project.

Think of the opportunities: conference panels, grants, etc. You’re starting to find your tribe!

Do, however, take steps to protect your own work. I never posted anything dissertation-related online, except for some public history pieces and a very short (10 page) paper I gave at a conference. I’m happy to share my work with interested scholars, but until I’m ready to publish it and put it out there for the world to see, I’m not broad-banding the draft versions. This is just common sense, and I’d recommend it to everyone. You can’t be too careful.

In my next posts in the Grad School Survival Guide, I’ll discuss the process of planning a research year, and how to try to get through it in one piece. Stay tuned!

 

Wrong About Everything

I know, not the best title for my first blog entry, right?

A couple of months back, I presented some of initial findings on epidemic and epizootic disease in Egypt during the first World War at a symposium. (Ok, I’ll tell you the symposium was at Oxford. Yes, you may touch me.) I was flattered to be asked, especially since, as an ABD candidate, I got to be part of a two-panel session with speakers like Khaled Fahmy and Marilyn Booth (I’m still not entirely convinced I didn’t embarrass myself and everyone else, but that’s impostor syndrome for you).

The paper–which you can read here–is a short synopsis of human suffering during the war, especially among the poor, rural classes in Egypt, which are largely undocumented. It’s a works-in-progress presentation, very much based in preliminary findings, as one does at this stage in writing.

My dissertation focuses on breakdowns in public health during the war–the topic sentence could be summed up as “1918 was a deadly year for the Egyptian populace.” Even if one heeds Roger Cooter’s warning about reifying a positivist relationship between war and disease[1] –and I’ve compiled statistics for nearly a decade before and after the war–the demographic anomalies in Egypt between 1914 and 1918 are unmistakable. Four times as many Egyptians died of disease during the war than from military actions.

1918 also saw the birth rate decline to its lowest rate in a quarter century.

BirthDeath
source: Annual Reports of the Department of Public Health, Ministry of the Interior, 1911-1919.

I described a number of issues: food shortages that were documented as early as 1916. As residents complained about shortages of soap, eggs, cheese, and meat the Anglo-Egyptian administration, concerned with keeping the protectorate profitable, maintained a positive trade balance, exporting goods that were dearly needed at home. The cost of some basic household items rose over 200% between 1914 and 1918.

Likewise, relapsing fever and typhus cases increased substantially — both are louse-borne diseases, which can likely be tied to the increased movement of troops and support staff (including the men of the Egyptian Labour Corps). The war ended with the “Spanish flu” outbreak, which killed almost 140,000 Egyptians in just under three months.

There were also epizootics of both cattle plague (rinderpest) and foot-and-mouth disease that lasted over 18 months in large swaths of the country. Is there a relation between this and the soaring price of meat? It’s almost certainly the source of much of the protein that was sold on the black market in major cities.

As I said. Cheerful stuff.

During the break that followed my panel, a member of the audience approached me, identifying himself as a member of the landholding class from the Sharqiyya province in the Nile Delta (for the record, he is not an academic).

He insisted that I was completely wrong about nearly everything that I had said.

“We had hygiene!” he declared. “People didn’t die from these diseases in the 20th century!”

He suggested that I extend the dates of my study by decades in each direction; for example, he inquired if I had I looked at the number of deaths incurred through the construction work on the Suez Canal (1863-69), or knew how many more people died of disease in Egypt in the 18th century.

I won’t lie. This was my first outing with this material, and this was … not the sort of feedback I had hoped to get. The more I tried to explain the nuance of my argument, the more pushback I got. Having spent 3 months mapping the country from cataract to Delta, I tried to change the subject and ask where he was from–meaning where, specifically, in Sharqiyya. He looked at me as if I might just be the stupidest man on earth and responded, “Egypt?!”

As you can tell, I’ve let this episode roll right off my back.

However, I think there is something significant in the greater picture about his defensiveness, one that pushed me to think about the puzzling collective silence in nearly every history book about what I’m looking at. Even the Spanish flu is described in only two medical reports from the time; I’ve seen it mentioned nowhere else.

The notion of Egyptians dying in elevated numbers from disease was clearly distasteful to him–largely, I suspect, for the reason that it was undignified. People—at least not those of his class—did not die from disease in high numbers in the early 20th century.

In short, Egypt was modern. If it had not ascended, as the Khedive Ismāᶜīl had optimistically pronounced in 1869, to being among the ranks of countries which should be considered European, it had developed more rapidly than much of the Arab east, which languished in such a state that one scholar discussing the “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic in the Arabian peninsula (1919) could legitimately wonder whether medical officials in central Arabia were capable of distinguishing the influenza apart from other diseases with similar symptoms, such as typhoid.[2]

Indeed, my interlocutor is correct about that hygiene and medical care had been introduced under Muhammad Ali Pasha in the mid-19th century as part of a national campaign to improve public health. This has been described by LaVerne Kuhnke and Hibba Abuguideri (although the project had peaked in the 1850s and all but vanished under British administration).[3]

I struggled to explain in my response that afternoon that my interest was the significance of the war’s anomalous blip in the statistical record. The public health scheme in Egypt had, to a certain degree, brought epidemic disease under control, which is why the fact that infection and death rates soared during the war comprise a factor of interest. So, too, do the numbers of registered prostitutes in Egyptian cities, as well as the number of reported cases of venereal diseases, both of which increased substantially during the war and comprised their own crises in both medical and social health

During the first world war, Egypt was a nation at war. Its citizens were recruited into the war effort, and many of those citizens faced bodily harm and death fighting for the Union Jack in far-off lands. Those who remained at home suffered from shortages of basic supplies–although production rates decreased slightly, they dropped nowhere near as much as consumption rates. They were forced to eat tainted meat that they purchased at high prices. They died of disease whose effects were exacerbated by malnutrition. Some turned to prostitution or other illicit activity to make ends meet.

There is nothing heroic about the fight against a virus, perhaps. As the first World War and the 1919 uprising became enmeshed together in the national historiographic project celebrating the nationalist movement and Egypt’s strive for self-determination, there was no space for sympathetic portrayal of poor women desperate to feed starving children and elderly relatives, and those who, in sheer desperation, turned to extreme measures to support themselves.

The commemorations held in Egypt from 2013 onward to celebrate the nation’s contribution to the First World War recognize only one of these groups.

I’m hoping to recognize the second.


[1] Roger Cooter. “Of War and Epidemics: Unnatural Couplings, Problematic Conceptions.” The Journal of the Society for the Social History of Medicine 16, no. 2 (2003): 283–302

[2] LaVerne Kuhnke. Lives at Risk. Vol. no. 24. Comparative Studies of Health Systems and Medical Care. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990; Hibba Abugideiri. Gender and the Making of Modern Medicine in Colonial Egypt. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013.

[3] Guido Steinberg. “The Commemoration of the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918-1919 in the Arab East.” In The First World War as Remembered in the Countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, edited by Olaf Farschid, Manfred Kropp, and Stephan Dähne. Beiruter Texte Und Studien 99. Würzburg: Ergon-Verl, 2006, 159–60.