From the Editors
You would be forgiven for thinking that launching this blog in 2012 was a strategic decision. Bringing the history of medicine to a new audience (as well as engaging its existing one) in a year so significant for its historiography might seem too neat a coincidence. The magnums of champagne required to toast the past twelve months of celebrations in our field could be of concern for a group of scholars only too aware of the potential damage to their livers.
For starters, there are two important anniversaries for one of the most influential historians of medicine (some might argue – ourselves included – the most influential). Charles Rosenberg can look back on half a century of researching, teaching, and (most importantly) inspiring, scholarship in the field since the publication of his transformative first book, The Cholera Years, and 25 years since the publication of The Care of Strangers. We also pay tribute to Allan Brandt, a colleague of Charles’ at Harvard, for the 25th anniversary of the (crucially) extended edition of No Magic Bullet – you know, the one with the famous epilogue about HIV. Looking more broadly to the History of Science, debates continue to flare around the structure of scientific revolutions thanks to Thomas Kuhn’s classic text which also reached its half-centenary this year.
But there are local, less conspicuous anniversaries to celebrate too. At a recent meeting of the History of Medicine Working Group at Harvard, the audience was amazed to hear Brandt announce that it was 30 years since he led the very first meeting of that once-fledgling community of scholars. This announcement came just after a discussion on “the current state of the field.” David Jones began the conversation by staking out a ‘pessimistic’ position which became familiar to him while a graduate student at Harvard in the 1990s. It was in the 60s and 70s, he said, that scholars in the history of medicine discovered the new and exciting disciplinary approaches of social history and “history from below”. This cut open a corpus of potential topics for medical historians that amply provided through the 1990s. But as topic after topic was picked over, concern mounted that new subjects were in short supply. Indeed, the novelty of the overall approach was growing thin.
Chin Jou, a newly appointed lecturer in the History of Science Department at Harvard whose research focuses on obesity (see our interview with her in “Consultation”), had, however, a more optimistic diagnosis. As medicine evolves, this introduces new approaches and poses new problems, she suggested; it is the duty of the history of medicine to reflect, record and critique these changes.
Charles Rosenberg was next to take the floor, offering a similarly optimistic outlook. “Am I a historian of medicine?” His characteristic self-deprecation was met with a stunned silence, and then protest. “If not you, then nobody is,” was Anne Harrington’s quick reply, voicing the sentiments of many professors and graduate students present. Rosenberg carried us back to the days when he started writing, a time when medicine itself was a relatively insulated discipline. In recent years, however, there has been unimagined expansion of the medical realm, extending into new aspects of social and political life. Topics for medical historians, Rosenberg believes, cannot help but diversify with this growth. After all, he has made his career as a historian who goes beyond the traditional confines of medical practice. It becomes clear from his work that medicine is a particularly good lens through which to look at life.
And this brings us back to our initial question – why start a blog about the history of medicine? A blog for a handful of academics searching anxiously for new articles to write? No. The history of medicine is a way – an illuminating and exciting way – of writing about the history of life. These histories are of urgent relevance for thinking clearly and creatively about our present.
As it happens, we did not have the many anniversaries in mind when we decided to launch our forum for comment and debate. We realized that, rather than a stale corpse of a discipline, the history of medicine is not only in rude health, but is engaged in animated conversation with a host of contemporary issues of interest to a varied audience. The connections and divergences between today and the past, between events we have all read about in history books and our own historical moment, are evermore intriguing.
But we have committed an academic crime. We are guilty of stitching together a narrative, a conveniently threaded sequence of events, that traces the “development of the field.” It is a good story. But the history of medicine does not occupy such well-defined territory. It is a shifting plot of land populated by many people who are not resident medical historians at all, but welcome visitors from other disciplinary pastures. Many key texts have been written by scholars who couldn’t predict their important contribution to medical history. It is precisely this openness which encourages a vibrant diversity of voices. We hope that you will join the discussion.