Encourage the Students If We Want to Survive

by Thomas L Snyder

As I’ve written before, the Society for the History of Navy Medicine is a unique double-hybrid organization in that it combines the interests of military history and the history of medicine with the interests of professional and academic historians.  In this kind of scholarly zwitterion lies a sometime uneasy relationship between the practitioners of an art (in our case, both the military and medical arts) and the arts’ historians.  In a February 2010 posting on this blog, I cited arguments that the historians need the practitioners for legitimacy and the practitioners need the historians for academic rigor.  I believe that the healthy future of such hybrid organizations and the disciplines they represent lies, as with all things, in their ability to attract new–meaning mostly younger–talent.  Yet the prospects for this continued renewal seem to be at risk.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and gnashing-of-teeth in the military history community these days about how little respect military historians get in the academic world.  Commentators on military history list serves frequently complain about a generally “anti-military” tone in history departments–especially in the “prestige” academy–that makes for an environment unfriendly to the advancement of their discipline.   Statistics on the declining number of professorates held by military historians seem to bear out a waning interest in, and influence of, military history and historians in the academe.  The announced (in April 2010) closure of the discipline’s British beacon, the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine, simply adds weight to the impression of a discipline under siege.  What’s important, and a bit worrisome, is that the academe is where our future historians are “born”.

The study of medical history has similarly seen more optimistic days.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this discipline was dominated by MDs with amateurs’ passion for the history of their art.  By the mid-20th century, MD/PhD giants like Henry Sigerist and Owsei Temkin came on the scene; they became a bridge to the more complete PhD-transformation of the discipline that we see today.   And this is all to the good of our field.  Nevertheless, the continued vitality of the discipline depends upon maintaining vigorous practitioner involvement.  But this MD component is in danger of disappearing.  A few years ago, the American Association for the History of Medicine’s annual Physicians’ Breakfast that I attended felt like a circling of the wagons as MDs and recently minted MD/PhDs argued passionately that MDs really do have legitimate role in the history of medicine and in organizations like the AAHM.  My limited but entirely congenial contact with that organization gives me the impression that the MDs are indeed being squeezed into an ever smaller corner.   Add the fact that medical schools are loathe to require a medical history component in an already necessarily overfull curriculum, and it’s easy to see why there’s an ever-smaller  pull for practitioners of the art to take a meaningful interest in the history of the art.

Recognizing the truism that “money talks”, the Society for the History of Navy Medicine last year announced a Travel Grant Program that would award $750 to a graduate student, medical student or nursing student whose paper was accepted for delivery at the Society’s Fifth Annual Meeting and Papers Session.  Of the 16 submissions we received by our 14 January deadline, no fewer than 6 were from students:  four graduate students of history, a medical student and a graduate nursing student.  It’s heartening to know that these papers are very competitive, and the Society may be happily digging deep to fund travel for more than one of them.  It’s just one small step, but by combining the small steps of several groups, departments and individuals, the prospects for advancing our discipline need not have to look so bleak.

©2011 by Thomas L Snyder

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