An introduction to the History of Medicine

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By | The Researcher’s View

L0025265 A physician examining a flask of urine brought by a young wo

A physician examining a flask of urine brought by a young woman. Oil painting attributed to a German follower of Gerrit Dou. Wellcome Library no. 47479i

The Wellcome Library and the Society of Apothecaries jointly organise a mini-course introducing medical students to the History of Medicine.  Here offering her thoughts on the recent 3-day course, is Anusha Ganesh – a 4th year medical student from the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, who is one of a group of students from that institution currently visiting London.

The year is 1822: medical students are crowded in the stands at the operating theatre at St. Thomas’ Hospital, watching and learning from a female patient’s leg amputation. Concurrently, students are discovering a vast array of physical presentations and illnesses from the mural by William Hogarth at St. Bartholemew’s Hospital. Scientists are discovering the new medical uses for tropical plants. We are moving from an age of medical treatment based on the four humors to one of understanding physiology and pathology. As a medical student in the 21st century, the Wellcome Library and the Society of Apothecaries allows us the opportunity to experience exactly these scenarios and more through the “Introduction to the History of Medicine” mini-course.

The course is a three day program in which medical students, mainly drawn from the London and Brighton medical schools, are shown a quick glimpse of the world of medicine centuries prior to our training. I had expected that the course would be three days of routine lectures, with professors reciting their PhD dissertations to us.  I feared the part of the schedule I would mainly be looking forward to would be titled, “Coffee break.” However, it was quickly into the first talk that I realized that the course had been meticulously put together in a ridiculously creative manner. Each day’s lectures followed the course of different aspects of medicine (public health, pharmacy, apothecaries, physician-patient relationship, research) from the 15th to 20th centuries. Following a morning of discourses and coffee, the students boarded for field trips only comparable to the popular American kid’s television show, “The Magic School Bus.”

Ms. Sue Weir, our well-versed tour guide, entertained us on our journey throughout London to visit important historical medical sites such as the Old Operating Theatre, Chelsea Physic Garden, St. Bart’s Hospital Museum, Wellcome Collection and the Science Museum.  She is extremely knowledgeable as a medical historian, but also up to date on the cultural tales behind the walls of historical London.

Being a student from the United States, this course not only provided me with the opportunity to learn about medicine’s history, but meet a group of students from the United Kingdom who shared my passion for the subject. With students in all stages of training, it was an interesting melting pot of various opinions and life experiences. New bonds were forged with the basis being a love for medical history, the ancient objects of medical treatment that we examined with at the Science Museum, as well as the tea and delectable (and plentiful) sandwiches at lunch.

The Wellcome Library and the Society of Apothecaries did an excellent job of incorporating the hidden gems of medical history into our medical training. As we go through our regular curriculum, it is vital to explore the roots of medical knowledge from past centuries. Of course, after seeing hundreds of pictures of physicians through the ages, it is much easier to appreciate that physicians have come a long way from diagnosing almost everything based on studying urine samples!

Author: Anusha Ganesh

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