Time & Place


Medicine in history and culture.

"... the 'great men of medicine' performing the Wonderful Onward March of Medical Progress."

This is how Dr Lesley Hall of the Wellcome Library has described past perceptions of the history and development of medicine, when it was held that Western medicine progressed in a linear and straightforward fashion from the superstitions and quackery of 'then' to the advanced medicine of 'now'. This was the medical equivalent of the Whig view of history, which saw the past in terms of an inevitable progression towards modern democracy and enlightenment. Its two main strands were the study of pioneers - Hall's 'great men of medicine' (and they generally were men) such as William Harvey, Edward Jenner and Joseph Lister - and histories of institutions including hospitals.

In the last few decades, the history of medicine has been transformed, creating much less linear and organised, but nonetheless more interesting and diverse, perspectives. The history of medicine now embraces non-Western traditions, both in their own right and also in terms of how they fed in to Western medical traditions. Alternative and informal health practices are studied, as well as the interface between medicine, magic and religion. The experiences of patients have become a legitimate subject for inclusion, as have the social factors that influence the experience of illness, getting sick, paths to treatment and the nature of that treatment. There has also been more interest in the female experience of healthcare - traditionally men have dominated both medicine and the writing of history. Interest in the pioneers of medicine continues, but they are now more likely to be placed within the context of times, and of the work of others around them.

The history of medicine, once written largely by doctors, is now a flourishing historic academic discipline, with Britain considered to be a leader in the field. Over 40 institutions in the UK offer medical history courses at undergraduate or masters level, many funded by the Wellcome Trust. The success of exhibitions relating to medical history, not least those at the Wellcome Collection, is testimony to the public's continuing interest in the subject.

The history of medicine is now also linked into wider historical and cultural perspectives, ranging from the political processes involved in the development of welfare states to gender attitudes within society and popular beliefs about health and the body. Medical history has forged links with other disciplines including theology, literary studies, economics, anthropology, sociology and health economics.

Increasing specialisation within the history of medicine has encouraged historians to focus on medicine in a particular time period, or in a specific place, for example London. There is also increasing interest in medicine in non-western cultures, particularly Islamic medicine, and research into specific themes that cut across time, for example the study of perceptions of pain or mental health in different historical periods, or the development of medicine in warfare.

As historians assumed the responsibility for the study of medical history from doctors, history and medicine seemed to be placing themselves in separate camps, with little in common. The relationship has in fact shifted, but significant interaction continues. Many medical students choose to study the history of medicine as part of their medical studies, and history of medicine departments within universities forge relationships with medical and health care practitioners and organisations.

Studying recent medical history can be challenging for historians, particularly as medicine and medical technology become ever more complex and the speed of development increases. Whole new themes are emerging for historians to grapple with, including genetics and nanotechnology, as well as less tangible ideas such as the 'worried well'.

Sickness and medicine touch everyone. The best medical history does not only tell the stories of the doctors and scientists who advanced medical knowledge, or the institutions through which people received their healthcare. It also speaks about the health or sickness of individuals, which in turn encompasses how people live, what they eat, how they organise their lives and how they understand the world. All this serves to reinforce Henry Wellcome's belief that the history of medicine can illuminate the whole of human life.