Some thoughts on the History of Medicine


The little world of the historians of medicine suffered the consequences of an earthquake in July 26. You probably did not notice it, but it happened. I promise.

It was a minor earthquake, sure, but it raised a strong debate. Let me summarise what happened for you:

  1. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief at The Lancet, wrote a comment about the present and future of the history of medicine last July 26.
  2. He claimed that (British) history of medicine is “invisible, inaudible, and, as a result, inconsequential” (Horton, 2014).
  3. As you can imagine, historians of medicine did not agree with him.
  4. Carsten Timmerman responded in The Guardian (August 4).
  5. And Simon Chaplin in the Wellcome Library Blog (August 4)
  6. Both followed the same argumentative strategy: HoM is not dead, and we can show you all these interesting and new books as a counterargument to your own list of interesting but old books.
  7. Therefore, the history of medicine, nowadays, is visible, audible, and, as a result, consequential? Substantial? Unfrivolous? (Chose the most appropriate, you, native English-speaker). Q.E.D.

Now, I’m going to share some personal thoughts about this “quarrel”. First, I agree with Timmerman and Chaplin, history of medicine is not dead… Not yet, at least. The problem is what could happen tomorrow. I’ll elaborate on this later, now let me say something about the article at the Lancet.

Horton’s article is important, of course. He is writing at The Lancet, an important journal for any medicine-related discipline (I read The Lancet frequently… ok, from 1877, but IS The Lancet). But we cannot overestimate its relevance. It is a comment, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe historians of medicine are doing something wrong, and they must put more efforts in the dialogue with medical profession. A regular history of medicine column at The Lancet, as Timmerman suggests, could be a good idea. Good for us, problem solved!

In my humble opinion, the real risk (or opportunity) for the history of medicine is other, and lays on the most unsuspicious of the places: the Wellcome Trust.

As Simon Chaplin shows in hist post, and all we positively know, the WT is the British institution investing more money in the history of medicine in the last 50 years (roughly). So, why I’m saying the risk for the history of medicine is into the WT?

Look at the WT funding webpage. Can you see a section for the History of Medicine? No, there is a Medical Humanities area, something similar, but not the same.

Even more, look at the WT Strategic Plan 2010 – 2020. Can you see a Focus Area call “Exploring the History of Medicine”? One more time, the answer is no. There is an area called “Exploring medicine in historical and cultural context”: quite similar but not the same, again.

Am I saying that the Wellcome Trust wants to “kill” the history of medicine? Not at all!

I’m saying that we can detect some trends in the most important institution funding the history of medicine worldwide. Disturbing trends, if you are a historian of medicine.

Obviously, the WT IS funding research in the history of medicine. Simon Chaplin mentions some of the most relevant projects in his post, and I don’t even need to write about the Wellcome Trust Fellowships and how they are funding the next generation of historians of medicine in the UK (even if, again, they are included in the Medical Humanities section).

We have to look for clues in other places.

The Hub at Wellcome Collection, the major and most innovative WT’s programme for the Medical Humanities (the substitute -spatially at least- of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine) was awarded last 27 of March. The group headed by Felicity Callard won the contest with a superb project about the busyness of modern life: “Bringing together a rich network of scientists, artists, humanists, clinicians, public health experts, broadcasters and public engagement professionals, the group will explore states of rest and noise, tumult and stillness, and the health implications for lives increasingly lived in a hubbub of activity”.

Can you spot a historian here? Once again: humanists, not historians. They look quite similar, but they are not the same. There are historians in the project, of course, but not in a prominent position (look for them in the “Other contributing members” section down the page). It is evident that history is not part of the “core” of the project. Is a side, if you want, not a main (again, I’m describing a fact, not qualifying it).

So, even if the present of the history of medicine is as brilliant as its past was (or even more) we could see some dark clouds in the future: the (posible) progressive dissolution of the History of Medicine into another thing, the Medical Humanities.

Is it a bad or a good thing? I don’t know. We are building the Medical Humanities right now, so is too soon to know. There are, anyway, some interesting elements in the Medical Humanities that are not in the History of Medicine (interdisciplinarity, direct collaboration with doctors and patients, etc.), but the opposite is true too (a sense of tradition, a established institutional network, etc.). I’m not sure what will happen at the end, but I think historians of medicine shall pay attention to these changes (I know they are paying attention) and act accordingly. Risks and opportunities. Not so different at the end.

To conclude,

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen and keep your eyes wide the chance won’t come again … for the times they are a-changing


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