Historians, Doctors, and the History of Medicine

I assiduosly follow the listserv MEDMED-L (Medieval Medicine). The list manager is Monica Green, Professor of History at Arizona State University. Professor Green oversees a lively conversation that covers not only the history of medieval medicine, but also a general academic “take” on all matters medicohistorical. It gives me, a non-academic, insight into trends in historiography. She also posts occasional rants or pet peeves.

 In her most recent of the latter, Professor Green cites a recent blogpost in which the British classicist Helen King describes “a particularly fine case of Bad History” in a newly published medical textbook. Professor Green takes the story and runs with it, observing that a relevant piece of historical scholarship never made its way into PubMed, a definitive bibliography for medical researchers. She concludes, “So, this is what we’re up against when we’re talking about the invisibility of humanistic work. We’ve talked about this on MEDMED-L multiple times, but even with Google and Google Scholar, it seems that people simply won’t step outside of certain boundaries when it comes to bibliography”. She means that mainstream medical authors don’t do a good job of researching and understanding historical aspects of their discipline.

This state of affairs is ironic because physicians themselves “discovered” medical history in the modern west. Early in the 20th century, men like William Osler, who was classically trained, and Fielding Garrison, a pioneer in the history of military medicine, cited their history direct from Greek and Latin. Two of the most renowned mid-century historians of medicine were physicians: Henry Sigerist mastered 14 languages – including Arabic, Sanskrit and Chinese – which he applied to his study. Unfortunately, he died of a stroke long before he had completed his work. More durable was Owsei Temkin, another physician giant in the history of medicine. Russian born and German trained, Dr Temkin held forth as Professor of History of Medicine at John’s Hopkins, publishing his last book just a year before he died at 99. 

By around mid-twentieth century, PhD historians had also discovered medical history, and since that time, have come to dominate all aspects of the discipline, and justifiably so: they bring training in historical techniques, and, almost as importantly, the linguistic skills necessary to probe the ancients. That’s not to say physicians have left the field entirely. For instance, Howard Markel, MD., PhD, Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan is well known and well regarded, and has published more than 100 articles and reviews, and written or edited 10 books. Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear – despite protestations* to the contrary – that a PhD / MD divide exists in the production (and use?) of medical history. And, at least by the example cited here, MDs may not be doing such a good job of citing their own history, especially if that history is not found in the medical (vice historical) literature.

What to do? Professor Green says that relevant historical writing needs to find its way into standard medical research bibliographies. Surely, if the National Library of Medicine owns a volume, it should be listed in PubMed. In addition, medical editors should, as a matter of policy, insist that works containing historical references be subjected to rigorous peer review – by historians. Professor Green closes, I’m not sure how relevantly, “Hence the value of blogs, which erase the scholarly / popular [shall I say ‘PhD / MD”] divide.”

The perspective physicians and other medical professionals bring to the medicohistorical enterprise  lends a vitality that dry historicism cannot. Even if we don’t have the skills or inclination to research and write medical history, our most human of professions calls on us to portray it with exemplary accuracy, and I might add, with extraordinary passion.  We need to make it part of our way of thinking.

*The American Association for the History of Medicine, “a professional association of historians, physicians, nurses, archivists, curators, librarians, and others…” was founded in 1925 by a group of physicians. Some years ago, I attended the traditional Clinicians Historians’ Breakfast at an AAHM annual meeting. There, much bonhomie was generated around the importance of doctors to the medical historical enterprise. “After all, doctors create the history, and their presence provides verisimilitude to the undertaking”, people seemed to say. I’m not so sure the majority of attendees actually believed this, and I think that’s a good part of why a PhD / MD divide exists. 

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