What has the history of medicine ever done for us?

The history of medicine is a fast expanding and fascinating area of historical enquiry which I have embraced in both my research and teaching. My personal interpretation of the history of medicine is that it includes aspects of medicine, health and the body in more or less equal measures. A few weeks ago I posed a question to my Facebook friends:

“Is there any period, area or topic of history that doesn’t contain the history of medicine?

A screen capture of Professor Lesley Hulonce's Facebook conversation which inspired this dialogue.

A screen capture of Professor Lesley Hulonce’s Facebook conversation which inspired this dialogue.

My own interest in this question began when I wondered whether to apply for my current job as a lecturer in the history of medicine at Swansea University. Was I qualified to teach this? I made a list of all the topics I had either researched or taught, and I was staggered to realise just how many topics were directly or indirectly related to this discipline. My main area of scholarship is the Victorian and Edwardian poor laws, and I’ve researched health reforms and policies, sexualities, contagious diseases, childbirth and life-cycles. I’ve also taught about these and venereal diseases, abortion, contraception and mental health. So, I applied for the job and happily I was offered the post. This demonstrates too that medical history is aligned closely with social investigations and discoveries. I always ask my new students what they think the greatest medical discovery of all time is. Many say antibiotics and vaccination which of course have saved many lives, but the simplest, and most complicated to bring to the world at times, is just being able to have clean water.

The response on Facebook was very surprising; many people had not considered before just how pervasive the history of medicine is within so many areas of historical enquiry. A few responses concerned the lack of medical sources in antiquity, but my own teaching has demonstrated that while not as prevalent as more modern periods, sources do exist, and in some numbers. Texts, artifacts, remedies and art are all sources that relate to our wider understanding of historical contexts within our research. And these sources also relate to today’s medical practices such as cupping, which was publicized recently for its use by today’s Olympic athletes. Students of warfare also know that many medical discoveries were made during times of war, such as plastic surgery, blood transfusions, vaccination and infection control.

Edwin-Smith papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text. The text is attributed by some to Imhotep, an architect, high priest, and physician of the Old Kingdom.
(Source: World Research Foundation)

 
 
 
 

Economic historians use medicine, health and the body and relies how a huge impact it has on population studies, economies and life expectancy and birth rates. Gender history uses all aspects of the history of medicine from birth to death, and the constructions of sexualities. Researchers of the histories of education know that children missed schooling because of ill health and also to look after poorly siblings and during and following their mothers’ pregnancies. If ‘history from below’ is a mine of health histories, royal lives were full of them too, from the ‘King’s Evil’ to congenital blood disorders and procreation concerns. Community histories are rich sources for the history of medicine, health and the body; mining communities and mill towns were often areas of mass disablement and death.

So, I want to ask you about your experiences as a teacher, student or researcher in the history of medicine.

  • It is as all-encompassing as I think?
  • Have you found that elements of medical and health history creep uninvited into seemingly unconnected areas of historical research?
  • What the history of medicine ever done for us?

I believe it is the bedrock of human histories and experiences, what do you think?

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Lesley Hulonce

Professor at Swansea University
Dr. Lesley Hulonce is a historian and lecturer in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Swansea University. She researches children, women, disabilities and prostitution. Her first monograph is available to preorder for £3 (a pound of which goes to the Careleavers trust) at Amazon.com you can read a preview of Pauper Children here!

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About Lesley Hulonce

Dr. Lesley Hulonce is a historian and lecturer in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Swansea University. She researches children, women, disabilities and prostitution. Her first monograph is available to preorder for £3 (a pound of which goes to the Careleavers trust) at Amazon.com you can read a preview of Pauper Children here!
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