Monthly Archives: May 2018

A Unique History of Medicine Experience – the American Osler Society

I’ve just attended the American Osler Society meeting, this year at the University of Pittsburgh. While the Society celebrates the life, career and philosophy of Sir William Osler*, the meeting is very much a history of medicine undertaking, but with an interesting twist: physicians or medical students gave virtually all of the papers.

Why is this unique? In the past, MDs represented the vast bulk of people undertaking the research and study necessary to write the history of the profession. Many of these men§ (as was the case then) – especially the Europeans – were educated in the Classics, and could read the Greek and Latin of Plato, Aristotle, Galen and the other ancients. Perhaps partly as a result of the loss of the classical languages among physicians, we began to see PhD historians enter the field starting in the 1970s. The American Association for the History of Medicine, historically dominated by physicians, is now made up of roughly a 50-50 mix of PhDs and MDs; and while dominated by the prior, it’s unofficial line is, “the PhDs bring historical skills and physicians provide verisimilitude” to the organization.

With the arrival of professional historians, the thrust in medical history shifted away from the unique character of Medicine with its “clinical” emphasis on the care of patients, or the advancement of this art by our brilliant or dedicated or inspired predecessors. Now the articles being published in medical history journals bear such titles as “The Cowpox Controversy: Memory and the Politics of Public Health in Cuba”^ or “Unpalatable Truths: Food and Drink as Medicine in Colonial British India”#

Medical historian and biographer Barron H Lerner puts it this way:

One of the enduring topics in the history of medicine—and at meetings for the American Association for the History of Medicine—is that of great doctor history. Most historians agree that the early historiography of medicine was dominated by this genre: books and articles often written by physicians who chronicled and praised the careers of earlier physicians, some of whom had been their professors.

Things changed dramatically beginning in the 1970s, however, when professionally trained historians, many with Ph.D. degrees, brought the new “social history” to the history of medicine. These scholars argued that the old history—with its “Whiggish” emphasis on the accomplishments of largely male physicians and medical progress—ignored not only patients but gender, race, class, and unethical behaviors on the part of the medical profession. Not a few AAHM Clinician-Historian breakfasts have debated the value and validity of these two competing approaches to understanding medicine’s past.+

Now, back to the American Osler Society meeting. Held over two and a half days, the sessions featured papers with such titles as, “William Osler and his Contributions to the Field of Dermatology” and “Thomas E Starzl: Liver Transplant Pioneer”. That’s not to say medical ethics was ignored – “The Case of the Purloined Heart: Michael E DeBakey, Denton A Cooley and the Implantation of the First Total Artificial Heart” told the story of how Cooley “stole” an artificial heart from the DeBakey team and in a stealthy midnight surgery, installed it in a human patient. Nor did social history get short shrift – “Auschwitz Inmates Saving Lives in 2017: Nazi Medicine in Modern Medical Practice” caught our attention. The best paper of all, given by Yale medical student Joongyu Daniel Song, was an exceptionally erudite and mature consideration of “The Hellenism of William Osler and the New Religion Of Medicine”, in which the author describes Osler’s attempt to find a secular replacement for the Christian moral guide for medicine – and human endeavor in general – that was in decline as a result of the enlightenment and of such intellectual achievements as Darwin’s “Origin Of Species”.

But still, there was lots of “famous doctor” history of medicine here. With its emphasis on the people who advanced the art and science of medicine, the meeting felt just right to this physician.


* Sir William Osler (Oh-zler) was born in rural northern Canada and educated at the University of Toronto and McGill University. After postgraduate study in Europe, he taught briefly at Toronto before joining the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He was invited to be the founding Physician in Chief of Johns Hopkins Medical School. He taught there and revolutionized medical education by emphasizing bedside teaching. He wrote a textbook of Internal Medicine that went through several editions during his lifetime and beyond. In 1905, he became Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, a post he held until his death from pneumonia in 1919. He is revered in western medicine as the father of modern, evidence-based medicine, but also as the very model of the humanist physician. Classically educated, he had an abiding interest in medical history, and he frequently quoted the ancients in his medical writing.

§ The names Owsei Temkin (Russian born, German educated, but taught at Johns Hopkins), Henry Sigerist (Swiss German, also at Johns Hopkins), and Fielding H Garrison (Johns Hopkins early in his career, but made his name in the Army) spring immediately to mind.

^ Bulletin of the History of Medicine, Volume 92, Number 1, Spring 2018.

# Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Volume 73, Issue 2, 1 April 2018.

+ The 2018 Fielding Garrison Lecture for the American Association for the History of Medicine, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/691232 (accessed 18 May 2018).

©️2018 Thomas L Snyder

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Mare Island Naval Cemetery and H.R. 5588

Mare Island, located in the north east end of San Francisco Bay, was the home of the Navy’s first west coast ship yard, founded by then-Commander David Farragut in 1854. Two years later, Farragut supervised the first burial in what would become the Mare Island Naval Cemetery. When the Naval Hospital opened in 1871, responsibility for maintaining the cemetery fell to its commander (presumably on the theory that “if you can’t cure them, you’re still responsible for them”). This system of cemetery management lasted until the Mare Island Naval Hospital closed in 1957, after which, presumably the shipyard commander took on that task.

When the Navy Yard closed in 1996, the City of Vallejo became the Cemetery’s caretaker. But the City fell on hard times, largely because the single-industry town saw about a quarter of a billion dollars a year disappear from the local economy overnight. Bankruptcy ensued, and along with it, neglect of the Cemetery, already a victim of lost interest and other priorities. The result, a derelict resting place for over 200 sailors (including 3 Medal of Honor awardees) and their families (including the daughter of Francis Scott Key).

Long subject of veterans’ complaints of “national disgrace”, attention to the situation has been growing, largely due to the efforts of a local veteran, COL Nestor Aliga, USA (Ret.), who has generated significant publicity for the cemetery. Local Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA), a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart awardee, has taken notice and recently introduced H.R. 5588, which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to arrange for a transfer of the Cemetery from City ownership to that of the Veterans Administration. City officials have declared their readiness (eagerness, really) to effect this change, and California legislators have gone on record in support of the move. Local veterans are now writing California Senators Feinstein and Harris to encourage their introduction of a similar Bill in the Senate.

I encourage my readers to write their Congressional representatives to urge their co-sponsorship and / or support of H.R. 5588. A similar writing campaign to Senators will be forthcoming.