Debate and controversy
in Medical societies and scientific culture in nineteenth-century Belgium
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This chapter focuses on the function and the formalities of scientific debate in medical societies. Within an emerging (liberal) political culture of public speaking (practiced in spaces such as parliament and the court room), physicians depended on their rhetorical and performative skills when presenting scientific findings to their colleagues. Medical societies, in that sense, were performative spaces in which one’s capacity with the spoken word, as well as with the demonstration of surgical techniques and with the use of visual aids (e.g. medical drawings and plaster casts), proved essential to establishing one’s authority. The chapter pays particular attention to the attitudes and codes that underlay such successful performances. Physicians, in presenting their findings, needed to embody ‘openness’ in the communication of scientific results, while remaining polite and eloquent at the same time, and thus establishing themselves as gentlemen. By the end of the century, this tradition of eloquence and oratory gradually disappeared. As laboratory methods eclipsed traditional methods of clinical observation and discussion, the polite dialogues between gentlemen lost their importance as the primary roads to scientific truth.

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