A medical student meets the history of medicine

Show Navigation

By | Events and Visits

The Wellcome Library and the Society of Apothecaries jointly organise a mini-course introducing medical students to the History of Medicine through lectures and tours.  Here offering her thoughts on the recent three-day course, is Vaish Dandavate, a first year medical student at St George’s, University of London.

Apothecaries Hall

Apothecaries Hall. Photograph copyright Robin Soanes, made available under Creative Commons Licence via the Geograph website.

The first step into the beautiful Apothecaries Hall signalled the start of an exciting journey delving into the history of medicine.  Arriving promptly on a Wednesday morning, I was keen to meet other like-minded students to take this journey with.

Eager and excited, we met Mrs Sue Weir, our guide for the course. With the students still in awe of the grand surroundings, the course began with morning lectures. Professor Bill Bynum started at the beginning, with medicine’s roots with Hippocrates. We learnt about ‘types’ of medicine practiced in different periods and were briefly introduced to the key characters in the history of medicine, of whom we would hear more in the following days.

After lunch, we were whisked off into London for a tour of the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett. With a delighted audience, we re-enacted how an amputation would have been performed, taking in the tools and the atmosphere. Trying to pack in as much as we could in our three days, we also visited the Chelsea Physic Garden, a beautiful green space in the heart of Chelsea boasting the herbal origins of the drugs we rely upon today.

The remainder of the course began at the Wellcome Trust. Such a modern venue with traditional roots was the perfect setting. The lectures on the second day included a talk from Helen Wakely, where we explored the recipe books of women from the 17th century, discussing the efficacy of ingredients from ‘powdered fox lung’ to liquorice and aniseed. In the afternoon, we visited St Bartholomew’s Museum, the main attraction being the beautiful mural by William Hogarth. Standing on the balcony, we put our skills to work trying to diagnose the characters in the mural, bringing together our knowledge as medical students and our interest in the beauty of the history and culture before us.

The final day’s lectures were on the topic of Victorian medicine and the shift to the type of medicine we have learnt to value today – evidence based.

What really interested me is the strong link that our lecturers showed between science and humanities. The relationship felt natural and obvious, as we could not objectively look at one without understanding the other. It was especially encouraging to speak to doctors who simultaneously maintained their interest in history, showing that it did not have to be one or the other; it is possible to bring both together.


Andreas Vesalius. Woodcut, 1543 (Wellcome Library no. 9397i)

With a final stop at the Science Museum, we walked through the exhibits recapping our knowledge and seeing the artefacts we had talked about in person. An object handling session let us see for ourselves what we had been studying in the pictures. Trying to guess the purpose of each artefact was especially amusing, for who could have known the stunning gold box was actually a blood-letting device?

To see a second edition of Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica was one of my personal favourites; whilst medical students hate paying a small fortune for the books we are made to lug around, it made me realise that we take it for granted that we have access to them in the first place. How far we have come since Vesalius’ original work was printed.

Overall, the course was a wonderful experience through the rich history of medicine and an opportunity I am glad I seized. Thank you to the Society of the Apothecaries and the Wellcome Library for not only leaving me wanting to learn more and delve deeper, but also for giving me the tools to do this by myself!

Author: Vaish Dandavate

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

See more posts by this author

Comments are closed.

Related Blog Posts