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“What made him so special was the attention he paid to the patient’s story”

“What made him so special was the attention he paid to the patient’s story”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Eddy Houwaart inspired by Roy Porter

Professor Eddy Houwaart qualified to be a general practitioner, but trained himself to become a medical historian. He is a typical interdisciplinary scientist and he could name at least one inspirer for every discipline. But his greatest hero is British historian Roy Porter. “The way in which he told his story before a large audience, whether that was on television, radio or at a congress: impressive.”

“It is difficult to name a single person, because I have such an interdisciplinary job,” says Eddy Houwaart (1953), professor of Medical History. If he had remained a GP, he probably would have put his supervisor Peter Bügel in first place. “He taught and untaught me so much, for example that it is sometimes good not to act.” But Houwaart took another route and became engrossed in medical history. He was inspired by historical figures such as Rudolf Virchow, a German doctor who was politically active, and the Italian Antonio Gramsci, a nonorthodox Marxist, who showed why and how you should research cultural hegemony. And not to forget: the influence of French physician and philosopher George Canguilhem. “He taught me how to recognise different currents, concepts or certain theories in hard science, even in physiology and biochemistry.”

Houwaart learned most from Roy Porter. Many things are said of this British historian, who died at the age of 55. That he just fell off his bicycle one day in March 2002 on his way to work, dead, heart attack. “Maybe he literally worked himself to death,” says Houwaart. It is also said of him that he only needed a few hours sleep each night. “I never asked him,” says Houwaart who met him many times in London because of his board position at Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. “He worked hard, wrote several books simultaneously and also did a series on the BBC.”
What was correct: Porter’s oeuvre is immense, with more than a hundred books, mainly about the history of medicine and psychiatry. “What made him so special was the attention he paid to the patient’s story, the history from below. For example, he wrote about how patients thought about diseases in the eighteenth century. For once it wasn’t about the doctors’ view; that was a real eye-opener. It is not that I always have Roy Porter in the back of my mind, but in my own work I try to maintain that view from below. I am now, for example, doing research into the history of vaccinations. Of course you can look at how a vaccine was developed in laboratories, but I find it more interesting to see what happened in infant welfare centres, why women took their children there.”

Houwaart refers to his source of inspiration as “an amiable, social man. He describes the medical history with so much erudition, so lively. There was such an unbelievable pace to it.” And the way he excelled on paper, he also did on stage. “He was full of stories. I think I saw him for the first time at a congress in Rotterdam. There were a hundred people in the audience and Porter placed a pile of papers in front of him. Quite soon all the paper was blowing away. ‘Nonsense,’ he said. ‘I am just going to talk’. That flow that he was in: fantastic. I was blown off my chair. I was still quite young, doing a Ph.D. on health care in the Netherlands in the19th century. I also gave lectures, but I wrote all my texts down on paper and then read them out. Deathly boring of course! As far as that is concerned, I learned a lot from him. He was an oratorical talent.” His appearance? “He was a stocky man, often unshaven with a grimy shirt and a leather coat. But that didn’t bother him, nor did it bother his audience – even though they were often in suits.”

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