Can You Help Me, Doctor?
How Patient Requests Changed Birth and Death in the Twentieth Century (current project)

In my current research project I investigate how patient requests contribute to the medicalization of ‘natural’ life processes such as giving birth, aging and dying. I focus on two case studies, both in the twentieth-century Netherlands: hospital birth and active euthanasia. The project, outlined in more detail below, is funded through an NWO Veni grant. Although my case studies are both situated in the Dutch past, the larger questions I ask are certainly not unique to the Netherlands or to medical history, and I am keen to collaborate with researchers working on similar themes in different places or disciplines – if you’re interested, please drop me an e-mail at

Project summary 

A 78-year-old woman shuffles into the doctor’s practice and asks for euthanasia because she considers her life completed — how should we respond? Patients increasingly seek medical interventions in ‘natural’ life events like giving birth, aging and dying; their requests vary from eyelid corrections and Viagra prescriptions to freezing egg-cells and assisted dying. Our response to such demands matters — not just to individual patients, but for all of us, because patient requests can transform the role medicine plays in our society. However, currently we do not understand the requests’ long-term effects. To help providing this understanding, this project investigates the long-term history of two patient requests concerning the beginning and the end of our lives: hospital birth and active euthanasia.

The project analyses the emergence and effects of patient requests between 1900 and 2015. It challenges the traditional view that patient requests started to transform modern medicine only in the late twentieth century and introduces the new argument that patients initiated medicalization throughout the long twentieth century. Building on insights from history and sociology of medicine, I historicize two patient requests which we usually think of as having emerged only recently in the Netherlands: hospital birth and euthanasia. To do so, I will analyse a wide variety of sources, including medical journals, newspapers, parliamentary records and popular magazines. Systematically studying these sources is now possible for the first time due to recent mass digitization projects.

Now that we can carry out this research, it is urgent to start this project soon, since we are struggling with newly emerging patient requests on matters of life and death. Only if we understand the long-term development and consequences of such requests, can we decide how to deal with them — which will ultimately determine how we are born and how we die.

Heavy Matter
Fatness and Weight in the Netherlands, 1890–1940

In this project, a digital humanities postdoc project at Utrecht University, I investigated the establishment and consequences of the boundaries between health and illness in twentieth-century Dutch society. I understand these boundaries from a medical humanities perspective: not as the inevitable outcome of biomedical research, but as a historically contingent construction involving many actors, both human and non- human, including doctors, patients, insurance companies, journalists, pharmaceutical companies, politicians, pharmaceuticals, measuring instruments, diagnostic manuals and advertisement illustrations. My main case study was the construction of fatness as a health risk in the twentieth century. I argued for example that different types of weighing instruments (e.g., penny scales, bathroom scales, medical scales) and practices (e.g., weighing during insurance examinations, at home, in the streets, in child health centres) not simply reflected, but actively shaped ideas on fatness — in particular, the idea that body weight is a meaningful measurement for both fatness and health. I also analysed how these objects and practices shaped our personal experiences of body weight, especially how we have come to experience it more and more as a private matter.

Preparations on the Move
The Leiden Anatomical Collections in the Nineteenth Century (PhD research, 2008–2013)

In my PhD thesis (Leiden University, 2013) I analyse how medical and non- medical audiences engaged with nineteenth-century anatomical collections. I show how medical researchers and students used these collections actively: preparations were taken out of their jars, given round in class, handled, reinvestigated and even redissected. The preparations’ material properties, I argue, enabled these handling practices, by allowing constant reinterpretation and therefore reuse in research and teaching. I show how this prolonged medical use made the collections less and less visible to lay audiences: up until today, anatomical collections tend to linger in hospitals and laboratories, where they are usually hard to access for the general public, even if they are open in theory. I am currently revising this thesis into a book titled Handling Anatomical Collections in the Nineteenth Century: Leiden and beyond.