Is medical history dead? So suggests Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, in a recent comment piece (unless you’re a Wellcome Library member you’ll need to register to read it or pay $31.50 to rent the page for a day).
Citing Owsei Temkin’s call to historians of medicine to use their understanding of the past to connect to the present, Horton asserts that Temkin’s successors are falling short: “Most,” he claims, “have nothing to say about important issues of the past as they might relate to the present. They are invisible, inaudible, and, as a result, inconsequential. “The result, Horton believes, is that medical history “is a corpus of activity lying moribund on its way to the scholarly mortuary.”
It is strong physick, and has prompted an appropriately emetic response on Twitter. Carsten Timmermann (@ctimmermann) is among those who have risen to Horton’s challenge to suggest recent books that do precisely what Temkin wanted. And Carsten and others have a point.
Horton cites Helen Bynum’s excellent book Spitting Blood: The history of tuberculosis (which Horton reviewed for the Guardian in 2012) as an ‘exception’, conveniently overlooking the OUP Biography of Disease series, edited by Helen and Bill Bynum, from which it stemmed, and which has helped historicise our understanding of conditions such as breast cancer (Ilana Lowy), obesity (Sander Gilman) and asthma (Mark Jackson). The winner of last year’s Dingle Prize, awarded by the British Society for the History of Science for the best book on history of science, technology and medicine aimed at a wide readership went to David Wright’s Downs: The history of a disability, another volume which emerged from the same series.
Among the books shortlisted for the 2014 Wellcome Book Prize was Emily Mayhew’s Wounded: The long journey home from the Great War, a fine piece of historical research which feels pertinent not just because of the forthcoming centenary, but because of a more recent history which has once again put injured service men and women into the public eye.
In fact, compiling a list of examples with which to refute Horton’s charge soon spirals out of the compass of a single blog post. Looking just at recent or current Wellcome Trust-funded projects reveals historians engaging global health practitioners and policy-makers (Sanjoy Bhattacharya in York); or tackling rich and resonant subjects such as the history of stress (Mark Jackson), pain (Joanna Bourke), the emotions (Thomas Dixon and colleagues) and genomic medicine (Steve Sturdy).
The EC-funded project Diseases of Modern Life: 19th century perspectives, headed by Sally Shuttleworth, is another reminder that the conditions we think unique to our present have historical antecedents. And this research can and does have an impact. Virginia Berridge (author of Demons: Our changing attitude to alcohol, tobacco and drugs) is one example of an academic who has used her expertise to inform government current policy by providing a historical perspective on intractable problems.
There is plenty of evidence too of historians engaging more widely with audiences outside of academia, from the Guardian’s H-word blog (co-authored by medical historian Vanessa Heggie and historian of science Rebekah Higgitt) to appearances by Exeter-based expert in Welsh medicine Alun Withey on BBC Six Music.
Nor should we accept at face-value Horton’s assertion that to be meaningful, history of medicine must always speak only to current issues. Just as biomedical science would be immeasurably poorer if every project had to have demonstrable clinical impact, so too there must be space for research that simply enriches our understanding of human history (something which was certainly not alien to Roy Porter, whose untimely passing seems, to Horton at least, to have marked the death knell of history of medicine). Fittingly, last year’s Roy Porter lecture, by Colin Jones, traced the history of the smile in eighteenth-century Paris. The story will be more amply told in his forthcoming book, The Smile Revolution (due in September). Let’s hope that this, at least, might lift the gloom that has enveloped the Lancet HQ.
Author: Dr Simon Chaplin is Head of the Wellcome Library.