Emily Hagens is co-curator of Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness and a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota. Aside from Masterpiece Theater and rare books, she studies 16th century Italian domestic medicine and vernacular print and manuscript culture.
Most of us know and love Downton Abbey. The beautiful scenery, the love and money that is constantly lost and re-found, the costumes... and the gut-wrenching moments of tragedy, too, keep viewers speculating, hosting themed tea parties, and coming back to Masterpiece Theater's hit show time and again. Although I generally love the show, the historian of medicine side of me also thinks the detailed research that goes into some of the scenes most filled with tension is exciting. When Lois Hendrickson, interim curator at the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine, offered me the opportunity to help curate this fall's exhibit Downton Abbey: Behind the Scenes of Health and Illness, I jumped at the opportunity.
As a Ph.D. student in the history of medicine, I'm accustomed to research with archival sources and rare books, but this exhibit required a different kind of initial approach. Instead of beginning in the Wangensteen's extensive collections of medical books and artifacts, I began on Hulu, re-watching all three seasons of Downton. With ears and eyes tuned to medical instruments and discussions, I took notes on every instant when a character mentioned, feared, or experienced a medical event. I also spent time perusing social and news media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, XOJane, and the Huffington Post for ideas about what viewers noticed most often about medicine in the show. Some instances were obvious, like the shock at the sudden presence and disappearance of Spanish Influenza. Others made fewer waves, like Mrs. Patmore's cataracts or Mrs. Hughes's breast cancer scare. Since WWI, or The Great War, was such a presence in season 2, Lois and I knew that military medicine would need to be a significant part of the exhibit.