100 years on: what does a 100-year Google snapshot tell us of public interest in Mary Baker Eddy?

Next in our “100 years on, and still going strong” series, celebrating the continued resonance of Mary Baker Eddy’s life and ideas 100 years after her passing.

Google Labs has furnished the world with an amazing new tool called the Ngram Viewer. Put a topic in a search box, press return, and you get a graph that maps the number of mentions that subject has had in a key collection of books over the years. The years in question are 1800 to this century.

Through putting in a particular individual’s name (provided they have been well-known enough to even register in the data!) you get a visual indication of the popularity/(notoriety?) of that person throughout the period you have inquired about.

I used the Ngram Viewer to get a snapshot of the trajectory of public interest in Mary Baker Eddy in the years 1900 to 2008, the latest date covered by the Ngram.  I would stress that this is just a snapshot! I will leave it to historians and other academics to flesh out the profounder meaning offered by this kind of data. (Researchers at Harvard University’s Cultural Observatory have put together some helpful tips for using this data for scholarly research, which this blog certainly does not claim to be!)

Below is the result.  (Or click here to see an Ngram for the whole period during which Mary Baker Eddy’s name has registered).

Of note is the acceleration in interest during the last five years of her life peaking sharply at the time of her passing.  (A collection called Tributes from the Press: Editorial Comments on the Life and Work of Mary Baker Eddy in the Twentieth-Century Biographers series of biographies indicates the huge interest in her life at this time.)

And then during the two world wars there are very noticeable peaks.  Just as the saying goes that “there are no atheists in a foxhole”, it seems like the imminent dangers for civilians and soldiers alike during these periods might have focused minds on the importance of exploring what Mary Baker Eddy’s research, healing results, and writings offer – a lucid explanation of the provably practical power of God to touch and benefit the human experience.

In fact two books – Christian Science Wartime Activities, covering the First World War, and The Story of Christian Science Wartime Activities, 1939-1946 – evidence that this was not just idle curiosity.  Many people found Christian Science to be “a very present help in times of trouble” (to borrow a Bible phrase from Psalms), even on the terrible front lines of World War 1, and during the horrors of World War 2.

On either side of the First World War peak, the interest in the author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures remains fairly steady.  Following the Second World War peak it stays high during the difficult post-war years and then it plummets back to pre-war levels as times get easier again.

Perhaps more of a question for those who love Christian Science, and who understand that public interest in the “discovery” of this systematic explanation of Christian healing is tied in with the public’s awareness of its “Discoverer”, is to ask what caused the downward trend in public interest from the mid-70s to the early 1980s, before rising to a modest peak in the late 1990s?  Interest seems to have levelled off from 2002 till today halfway between the recent low-point of 1981 and the recent peak of 1997.

What about Mary Baker Eddy compared to her contemporaries?  Florence Nightingale was born the year before her (1820) and died in the same year (1910).  Contrasting the two lines on the graph below, interest in the famed nurse peaks lower than the Founder of Christian Science – showing just how much of a public figure the latter has been! – although interest in Nightingale overall has remained more steady.  Without that Second World War peak – which Nightingale didn’t share – the trend would seem to have been for parallel trajectories, but with Nightingale tracking out at a loftier level.

And what about Mary Baker Eddy compared to contemporaneous authors Leo Tolstoy (red) and Mark Twain (green)?  Clearly Mark Twain – whose books remain classics of literature – has sustained far more interest from the general public.  Leo Tolstoy’s results no doubt reflect English language interest in him, as opposed to universal interest and would look far different if these results were in Russian!

As I said, these really are just snapshots.  It is for scholars to take these graphs and unpack their meaning in conjunction with all sorts of other data and perspectives.

Additionally, there are two quite different graphs which Google can’t yet scope out for us which might show different results.  The first would be a graph that indicates the infiltration of society by the ideas that these individuals have articulated which – in Mary Baker Eddy’s case – will be the topic for a future blog in this series.  The second would be a graph of the ways in which human experience has been changed, and is being changed, for the better by the impact of the individual’s life and ideas…

If the multiple ways in which my own life has been touched for the better through reading Science and Health and practising Christian Science is anything to go by, I can’t begin to conceive of the number of ways in which Mary Baker Eddy’s life and ideas have had, and continue to have, an impact on the world.

You can do your own Ngram project here.


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Mary Baker Eddy, Women's spiritual leadership

Author:Tony Lobl

I write and edit articles on spirituality from the perspective of the practice of Christian Science as an Associate Editor for the Christian Science periodicals. I studied at the University of Surrey earning a BSc Hons Degree in Modern Mathematics before the teachings of Christian Science transformed my life and re-shaped my career.


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