A Break in Brussels; the Wellcome Trust Releases Its Strategic Plan 2010 – 2020

Your Blogger-in-Chief is in Brussels for a couple of weeks getting to know his brand-new grand son and getting reacquainted with his four year old grand-daughter–and their parents. We seem to have brought some California weather with us, so we will take advantage of blue skies and sunny warmth to visit the 50s-historical Atomium and the new-historical Mini-Europe “theme park” right nearby, with the four year old as our guide.


A year ago in a post titled “History of Medicine Flagship Down By the Bows“, I noted with dismay that one of the premier supporters of the study of medical history, Britain’s Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine was to close. Now, from this side of the pond comes news that the Trust’s support of that study may not disappear entirely; rather it will be transmogrified into the support of a sort of “applied history”.

In perusing the Wellcome Trust Strategic Plan 2010 – 2020, I see that under three of its five main research “Challenges”–“Understanding the Brain”, “Combating Infectious Disease” and “Investigating Development, Ageing and Chronic Disease”, the Trust proposes to “support multidisciplinary research to bring broader historical, societal, ethical and cultural perspectives” on brain function and research, “develop activities to explore social, historical, political, anthropological and ethical perspectives” concerning infectious diseases, and “foster research to explore historical and social perspectives” on chronic diseases. All of this appears in a context of outreach to the public to build understanding of, and enhance trust in, science and medical research.

This to me does not sound like a bad thing.  Some (most?) historians will be uncomfortable with what I see as an attempt by the Trust’s board of directors to focus, by how it funds historical research, on the struggle to educate a larger public–and to bring medical history, in a very practical, “pragmatic” way, into a public dialog–about the role of medicine and medical research in society.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and Strategic Plan 2010 – 2020 only gives us a hint of its intent. But the next 9 years could see the flowering of a new, decidedly “applied” way of looking at the history of medicine.

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