Whither the History of Medicine (Again…)

Last month, in an article entitled Offline: The moribund body of medical history, Lancet Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton opined that, since the 1980s, medical historians have lost the bubble on “important issues of the past as they might relate to the present.”  He declaims that the academics dominating the field have somehow forgotten that  the esteemed Owsei Temkin (a father of the study of medical history in the west) related the history of medicine to the social, cultural, political and economic milieu in which the art and science are practiced. Temkin, he says, felt that historians, more than mere toters-up of medical events, should interpret the ebbs and flows of this most human of human endeavors. Citing what he sees as a dearth of current relevant historical inquiry, Horton’s damning peroration is: “So where are the historians of today to illuminate the past as we struggle with the aggressive commercialisation of medicine, failures of professional leadership, notions of free will and death, misuse of medicines, paralysis in public health policy, or catastrophic failures of care? They appear to have evaporated, leaving a residue of dead and inert dust.”

University of Manchester medical historian Carsten Timmerman, replying in the Guardian blog The H Word, begged to differ. He lists several recent works that offer the kind of inquiry Horton despairs of seeing ever again, and points to his own bookshelf as proof. But here, Timmerman admits, may lie the problem. The books on his shelf are probably on the shelves of other medical historians, and that’s about all. He allows that there are so many historians of medicine now that they mostly content themselves by discussing the high topics of the day – with each other. So what Horton sees as a coffin may simply be an historical echo chamber!

Timmerman offers an answer to this problem of communication, and it’s one that will be familiar to readers of this blog: make your historical work relevant by talking to doctors and other health care givers. To this I would add, talk to the general populace by participating in the debate about social and medical policy through op-ed articles, letters to the editor, media interviews, and talks at your local Rotary club.

©2014 Thomas L Snyder, MD

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