Who Should Write Medical History?

In the past month, I’ve had the good fortune to attend two talks by Ian W. Toll, author most recently of Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-1942.* In both talks, he introduced his writing philosophy by quoting a “friendly critic” who wrote – concerning his first book, Six Frigates: the Epic History of the Founding of the United States Navy* –  that Mr Toll had “drifted off target” by dealing with the social and political history surrounding the construction of our nation’s first fleet. Mr Toll went on to his own criticism: that naval historians have traditionally contented themselves with descriptions and analysis of tactics and battles, of throw weight and fleet maneuvers – to the exclusion of the larger historical context in which these details found their existence. Toll goes on to paraphrase the old saw about war fighting and generals: leaving history writing to the historians might be a dangerous thing.

I’ve written about this theme before in making an argument for “hybrid” history, as it has been written by historians of medicine in the past. In the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, almost all western medical history was researched and written by men trained to be practitioners of the medical art, not by professional historians. The names Henry Sigerist and Oswei Temkin spring immediately to mind. Both were German emigre’ physicians, educated in the classics as well as in medicine,  who devoted most of their careers to building the foundations of the canon of medical history. William Osler, esteemed by western physicians as the father of modern medical education and who is still seen as the medical  practitioner’s medical practitioner, had a keen appreciation for ancients of medicine and steeped much of his medical thought in its historical antecedents.

But could physicians who write medical history be criticized for being too focused on the tactics and throw weights of medical treatment to the exclusion of the larger social or historical context?  Howard I Kushner in a 2008 Lancet article put it this way: “…many physicians, untrained in academic history, write about the past and are labeled ‘historian’.” To be sure, “local” historical writing undertaken by the occasional retired practitioner may smack more of “famous person history” than of any serious historical undertaking.

Professional historians’ criticism of much doctor-written history in general is that it fails to take into account the social context  – and even the “belief system” – in which the medical treatments and events take place. What the historians miss, I think, is that physician historians tend to see their endeavors, and therefore their history, as based on immutable “scientific” foundations. This “kind” of history is not legitimately amenable to, or benefited by, traditional historic0-social analysis. Moreover, physicians may see professional historians themselves as particularly susceptible to error based on “cultural” and “belief system” biases. Think “Marxist” history or “Whig” history – both legitimate “schools” of history, but with quite different takes on historical persons and events. And there the division lies. As Kushner describes the schism, in the U S, physician historians belong to the American Osler Society; professional historians prefer the American Association for the History of Medicine. And never the twain shall meet.

But the twain must meet. I maintain that professional historians of medicine need their physician colleagues’ historical work to give medical  legitimacy and scientific understanding to their endeavors; doctors need the historians to guide us away from a narrow sort of navel gazing. The Society for the History of Navy Medicine is participating in such a collaboration in April. We submitted a doctor-only^ panel on naval medicine in Vietnam to the American Association for the History of Medicine. This panel was not accepted for a regular session at the annual AAHM meeting. But association planners – historians all – felt that the material represented in the papers was too important to be lost. As a result, AAHM will sponsor our panel as a separate luncheon event during the conference in Baltimore. The open nature of this panel in a casual  setting will actually permit a more wide-ranging discussion of the material than would be possible in the standard academic panel setting. It’s a win-win situation as I see it – an opportunity for all of us to collaborate in learning, historian and physician alike.

“*” – these links connect to Amazon.com. If you purchase a book via the links, the Society for the History of Navy Medicine will receive a small commission.

“^” – we’ve since added Jan Herman, a professional historian at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, to this panel.

©2012 Thomas L Snyder


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  • Paul Sayles  On 10 Feb 2012 at 20:37

    One might consider a collaborative approach. The early days of World War II and the Navy in The Philippines is clearly depicted in “South to Java”, written by VAMD William Mack and his son, a former line officer who went on to become a physician. Although a novel, the detail of the crew, ship and Asiatic Fleet operations are well told – VADM Mack was a participant in the operations of that period serving in 4 stack destroyer. The interweaving of the medical aspects of the time is well done and provides a nice counterpoint to the naval activities. If it works with a novel, I don`t see any reason that a collaboration between medicine and other disciplines wouldn`t benefit both camps.

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