Day 4 – Drink and health

A funny sort of day. We played with the search terms some more, with an eye to getting a smaller number of better quality results. We were also keen to create a bigger gap between the neutral and medical/critical search terms, so we made sure these were exclusive, in one list or another but not both. Now we were only getting hits where the document contained ‘alcohol’ and/or ‘cirrhosis,’  and then sorting these into two columns, ‘neutral’ and ‘critical.’ And we managed to get all the documents into the system – well, nearly all of them. Elasticsearch wasn’t so helpful today and left us scratching our heads over a few mysterious problems.

I’m really quite new to this kind of thing, but it seems to me that the appeal of digital humanities is

  1. adopting a methodical approach, finding things you hadn’t anticipated finding;
  2. and working with more results than one person could manage on their own.

We certainly got somewhere with the first of these. The (imperfect) results we started to see showed us a few unusual results, just as the extent of the Medical Officer’s dealings with adulterated alcoholic drinks had been rather surprising. For a start some of the household manuals seemed to use the more critical or medical language you would expect from doctors – though this is because they did, of course, offer medical advice to their readers. But I was still surprised to find ‘cirrhosis’ in the index of the 1906 edition of Isabella Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management, between ‘Cinnamon, The Tree’ and ‘Cisterns, Closing of Polluted.’


The entry does not even mention alcohol, one of the key causes of cirrhosis of the liver, but this discussion is still situated within a classic text on middle class living, where alcohol is normally something you are told to use in making a trifle. It wasn’t the only example we found, and that’s interesting. These types of sources are more mixed than I had first anticipated

But we could not claim that this was the result of a search of the entire set of works we had chosen; it was simply a case of having some of the legwork done for us before we dove into the texts themselves. Hopefully the end result of this process will allow us to see at a glance which terms crop up where, and to see with some certainty where terms appear to be where we expected them to be, or not.

And that’s where we ended the penultimate day. Tomorrow Rioghnach and Nat will reflect on the process and see what can be done with these searches.



Day 3 – Drink and health

Or, ‘how we wrote Elasticsearch queries.’ It’s good to have these different skills and forms of expertise in the team, not least because we have to explain to each other what we’re doing – and why it’s worth doing. Nat has been wrestling with the data all day today, while Rioghnach has been doing two essential jobs – 1. providing the project with some kind of documentation and reflection, and 2. checking some of our searches on the London’s Pulse and JISC Medical Heritage Library sites. I’ve been trying to work out whether the search terms we came up with are too focused (meaning we are only going to find the sorts of ideas about alcohol we started off with) or too broad (meaning we get a broad selection but also a whole load of red herrings.)

I suggested there might be three kinds of results:

  1. Discussions of alcohol we were expecting. Medical Officers returned the number of deaths from cirrhosis in many reports, for example, because that was their job.
  2. Discussions of alcohol we weren’t expecting. There’s much more on checking samples of beer and other drinks for adulteration than I was expecting, and that’s rather different to worrying about cirrhosis, because Officer were trying to make sure that drinkers got all that lovely alcohol they’d paid for and not (for example) arsenic poisoning.
  3. Hits that aren’t actually talking about alcohol at all, despite one or more terms that look like they are.


We cut out a few of the terms, partly because of this last point, but also because Nat’s wizardry began to show us some actual patterns (for the test sample, at least). There were a few OCR issues, too, where terms were absent from one search though we knew they were these somewhere. We ended up asking Elasticsearch to run a two step search, looking for key terms that must refer to drink first, and then searching for other terms. We then thought we might wait until all the data sets were ready before tweaking the searches any further (including one code-named ‘all the drinks.’)

So we have decided to look at a set of about 3,000 MOH reports, 50 cookery books and household manuals, and 14 handbooks for medical examiners, covering the period between 1842 and 1930. We hope to have this ready to go tomorrow, and then we need to settle some lingering questions about how we present the results. Are we interested in the distant reading of these three data sets, so can we quickly identify relationships between terms and different kinds of documents? Or in using these broadly-conceived maps to dive into the more complicated contexts in which these words surfaced, roaming free range through the documents?

Team Drink and Health



Day 2 – Drinking and Health

So after creating a list of drink-related terms to look for in our three data sets, we’ve been trying to work out how to search the 6000+ documents we’re interested in. Nat created an initial version of this and ran a search with a small sample of London Medical Officer of Health (MOH) Reports. We found quite a few hits for cirrhosis, delirium tremens, and other alcohol-related causes of death – which is exactly the way you would expect the MOH to approach alcohol.

We will need to tweak the way it looks for terms before we can search all the data – sifting ‘liver disease’ from ‘disease,’ for example – but the aim is to map out the prevalence of different kinds of terms within the three different data sets. This will give us some initial patterns – but we’ll then need to look more closely at the way the terms are used to check what these patterns might mean. And that’s where we might start to see some more unexpected discussions of drink.

Rioghnach has been using the London’s Pulse microsite to get a quick sense of the context for some of the terms, for example. She’s found that there are a surprising number of references to gin, sherry and other drinks in the Reports; why were Medical Officers, who were charged with looking after public health, worried about different kinds of drinks? It looks, of course, as if most of these concern the adulteration of these substances – Officers were meant to ensure that gin was gin, and not something more dangerous. Gin was an everyday foodstuff like mustard or milk or bread, not something that lead to an early death.


Rioghnach has also found other descriptions of drink in MOH reports that use much more judgemental language. These may well have been prompted by the 1904 Report of the Royal Commission on Physical Deterioration, which blamed drinking for a wide range of social problems which went far beyond the remit of the MOH. So here drink escapes the distant public health perspective, and the table showing causes of death, as well as the more neutral interest in its quality as a food item; it becomes the protean spectre we usually imagine when we think of Victorian or Edwardian attitudes to drink.

This seems like a good start. We have a sense of the kinds of patterns we might see when we can  search the data sets. We can see how this more distant reading will give us a map which will confirm these patterns, or show us new ones. And it will hopefully allow us to move from the more descriptive results showing where the terms crop up, to closer readings of discrete bits of the sets.We hope to compare between the sets, and see how these meanings change between 1854-1904, the period covered by all three sets.

This may be too much for us to get done, and there’s still lots to do, yet. And then there might be a problem with the OCR… but maybe that’s a problem for another day. Definitely feels like we are getting somewhere…

James, Rioghnach, Nat.

Day 1 – Drinking and health

Our project asks: how did different kinds of publication discuss drink and temperance between about 1850 and sometime in the interwar period? Were alcohol and abstinence presented as healthy or dangerous?

We know quite a lot about other ways of talking about drink – like M. C. Sykes’ The Curse, which deployed moral and religious arguments alongside medical ones in 1903 – but less about more everyday uses of alcohol, like those in contemporary household manuals.



We’re looking at three datasets: London’s Pulse, the Medical Officers of Health Reports digitised by the Wellcome Library; fourteen medical examination handbooks produced by life assurance companies; and fifty or so household management manuals (the second and third of these have been chosen from the UK Medical Heritage Library). These are ordinary encounters with drink: a local physician assessing the health of someone applying for a life assurance policy; a householder thinking about drink as an everyday part of mealtime and entertaining; or a medical officer discussing causes of death in their boroughs.

We’ve established a set of terms to look for (some of them are listed below.) We’re also trying to build in a stage partway through the week where we can think about, and hopefully refine, the terms we’re using. And then we need to think about what we can do with all of this.


And our methodology is as follows:

  • To identify any patterns in what is said about these terms within each data set
  • To compare data sets for similarities or differences
  • To see how messages change over time for each data set

Nat had to do a fair bit of data wrangling, and the team spent some time trying to establish the best search tools to use, but at the end of day 1 we are ready to investigate these sources.

Written by: James Kneale, UCL geographer interested in drink and temperance movements. Working alongside, Rioghnach Ahern & Nat Buckley