Shorthand and the Victorian mind

For many of us, shorthand is either a hobby or a tool of the trade. I was fascinated to come across this entry on the Oxford University Press blog which revealed just how central shorthand was to the achievements of neurologist William Richard Gowers. The post, called “Exploring the Victorian brain, shorthand, and the Empire”, tells of William Richard Gowers who as well as working as a neurologist, researched, wrote, and taught neurology.  He wrote the two volume Manual of Diseases of the Nervous System.

Sketch by Sir William Richard Gowers of a man with Parkinson disease in 1886
Sketch by Sir William Richard Gowers of a man with Parkinson disease in 1886

In their article, authors Ann Scott, Mervyn Eadie, and Andrew Lees explain how shorthand underpinned his work:

“One of the secrets of his success was his mastery of Pitman’s shorthand.

“Long before the days of electronic databases, Gowers collected thousands of detailed case-notes, taken in shorthand at his patients’ bedsides. Gowers was an early convert to applying statistics to medical research.

“His shorthand case-notes formed his database.”

The authors go on to explain how:

“He taught himself shorthand at the age of 15, driven by the hope that it would be useful for lecture notes if he managed to gain a place at University College London.

“He practised the skill when a medical apprentice in the village of Coggeshall, Essex, by keeping a daily diary in shorthand. Perhaps genetic memory drove me, also at the age of 15, to learn Pitman’s shorthand.

“Thus it transpired that my first task, just before writing our book, was to transcribe this 80,000-word diary contained in a notebook the size of an iPhone.”

Fascinating stuff, and it makes me wonder in how many other ways shorthand has helped shaped our world, and our understanding thereof.

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