Advertising the Past: How Emma Martel’s historical research is helping her understand today’s health-care issues

Advertising the Past: How Emma Martel’s historical research is helping her understand today’s health-care issues



What kind of mother are you?

A merry good-natured beautiful healthy mother—one with plenty of iron in your blood? Or a pale, weak, cross, nervous mother who needs iron? … Take Nuxated Iron to increase red blood corpuscles and help build up her strength and health, says physician.

Emma Martel holds up the ad, examines it. Where most see little more than an old-fashioned advertisement, Martel sees something more: a pattern, a story.

For two years, she has immersed herself in research exploring how ads in early 20th-century newspapers impacted women’s access to healthcare information, prior to widespread health education and resources. “Essentially, the overarching argument of my project is a claim that women’s health is shaped by a ‘moral imperative’ that advertisements and other health information sources place upon them,” she explains. Her finding could be used to draw parallels between how this information was communicated then, via newspapers, and how it’s being communicated now, through newer channels like social media.

Her research is made possible through the Scotia Scholars Awards, administered by Research Nova Scotia and funded by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness. The awards provide financial support to students with exceptional potential who are engaged in a health research project. It’s a perfect fit for Martel, who graduates this spring with a Certificate in Medical Humanities, alongside a Bachelor of Arts with combined honours in Early Modern Studies and Religious Studies and a minor in the History of Science and Technology (HOST).

Martel initially focused on ads targeted to women in 1918—a tumultuous time in Nova Scotia, with the Influenza Outbreak beginning, World War I, the recent Halifax Explosion (1917) and growing industrialization.

“You have a lot of women who are home alone now, managing their households, managing their money,” Martel explains. “And these advertisements are really quick to jump on to that, and to paint a picture of a good mother character who is healthy, and who therefore, to be healthy, needs to buy their medications.”

Digging into this phenomenon in the past helps inform Martel’s understanding of similar dynamics in our current moment.

“A lot of people have said… they experienced something similar through throughout Covid, with different types of advertisements and reporting taking certain angles that may place some form of blame upon people, or make people feel guilty … for how they engage with the world.”

Now in her second year of funding, Martel has broadened her scope.

“This second project is taking what I found in that first term … and looking into later and later newspapers to see if I can identify a shift as public health begins to have more directives toward helping with maternal health care,” she says.

This early immersion in original research means that Martel is also learning how to write research proposals and reports, apply to conferences and submit to journals. Last May, she presented “What kind of mother are you?”: The Influence of 1918 Advertisements on the Relationship Between Women and Medicine at a conference of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine in Toronto.

“That was a really rewarding experience that I can’t imagine would have happened without the support of the award and all of the wonderful people at Kings who encouraged me to apply to it.” Specifically, she says, working with Associate Professor of Humanities Mélanie Frappier, who advised her through the Scotia Scholars application and has been her research mentor.

Frappier describes Martel as inquisitive, hardworking and invested in changing the world.

“Emma’s work on the ads found in Nova Scotia newspapers during the Spanish flu epidemics is reminding us that, still today, advertisements play an essential role in how we understand and react to disease, and that our right to free speech sometimes comes at the cost to both our physical and mental health.”

Martel graduates in May and, after a gap year, she will pursue graduate studies in England—bringing her research with her. Looking ahead, she expresses gratitude for the doors King’s has opened, and the memories she’s made here.

“There’s a very specific brand of King’s conversation that kind of opens you up to people right away,” she says. “Like, we skip the small talk and we get right to who’s your favorite philosopher, and why. A lot of my memories are people-focused: I’ve made a lot of really wonderful friendships here.”

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