Why History of Medicine?

Hello all,

L0000838 Section of the brain, 19th century.
Fig. 1

This post is something of a small departure from our normal stream of content, but I believe it to be important to the progression of this site. As anyone who has read our blog will know, Chris is a current medical student and I am a history student who has always had a bit of a morbid curiosity about the history of medicine. In this post, I was hoping to half-think-aloud-half-explain-why, as I thought that I would tackle a rather large question that has been nagging at me for quite some time: why do I want to study the history of medicine? And why, if at all, is it important? In order to answer these questions, I must explain a little about what the history of medicine actually entails, and why I find it so darn fascinating.

First, and foremost, what actually is the History of Medicine? Well, to be quite frank, it’s exactly what it says on the tin. At face value, it is the engagement with the way medicine was practised, explored, and understood throughout history, whether it’s how the Ancient Egyptians cured ailments, or how the 1960s revolutionised reproductive technology, the history of medicine spans far and wide. Medicine as an academic subject of study encompasses huge range of themes, problems, and ideas that can vary considerably across time periods. And this breadth of subject matter is perhaps why it appeals to me so powerfully. Throughout my past couple of years as an undergraduate student, I have been able to explore all manner of aspects of the history of medicine, from the experience and expression of sexuality in Ancient Greece, to the history of HIV in 1980s America, to the conceptualisation of the human body in the sixteenth century. Anything and everything is open to the historian of medicine and this, perhaps, is one of the most potent aspects of the subject that entices me.

L0019727 Gautier d'Agoty, mezzotint ecorche female torso, back, 1746
Fig. 1

The longer I am in higher education, and the more that I read around the subjects that interest me, the more I am certain that I want to pursue a masters qualification in the history of medicine from an institution here in the UK, and the more I am warming to the idea of perhaps going into lecturing or research of some kind. I founded this blog with a close friend of mine in the hopes of putting some of my spare time into the exploration of unusual and interesting aspects of the history of medicine, and have recently drawn up a small reading list to explore over the coming months. I’ve been trawling through university websites looking at courses and what I can do when I graduate in just over a year’s time; I’ve been reading articles and blogs from prominent historians in the field; I have even been thinking about the area of the field that I am most interested in researching. I am even currently drafting an application letter that I hope to submit to a couple of prominent History of Medicine centres around the UK for a work experience placement or internship. Put simply: it’s become something of an obsession in these last couple of weeks, and it shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Fig. 3

So why, then, is it important? Believe me, there’s a lot of debate around the topic and forgive me if I cannot answer it as completely as one would like. For me, personally, I enjoy exploring the ways in which knowledge about the human body was gathered, and how the state of being human was conceptualised throughout history. Take, for example, the study of anatomy in the sixteenth century. At the time, it was believed that the body was kept in check by four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) as described in the writings of ancient Greek physician, Galen. It was believed that if you were sick, one of these four humors was throwing the body off of its delicate balance. The cure? Release one of the humors in the hopes that this would restore the equilibrium of the body. The practise of bloodletting, although still used today, was commonly used to treat a number of diseases in the hopes that removing the ‘bad blood’ would restore the body to health. The idea of the four humors, and the strange conceptualisation of the body that this gives, highlights a radically different conceptualisation of the self to the one we have today and this, I believe, is very important to the study of history.

I shall wrap this post up there I think, having explored a little of why I am currently looking into research opportunities in the history of medicine, specifically for masters study at this time, but also as a means of potential future employment (I have fallen in love with being at university, it would seem, and am looking for a way never to leave it – hopefully as a lecturer would be the dream!). Chris and I started this blog as a means of exploring the areas of our degrees in our spare hours that we were most passionate about, and for me that seems to be the history of medicine, science, philosophy, and sexuality, all of which pertain in one way or another to the conceptualisation of the self throughout the ages, and how it changed and developed over time. This, perhaps, is the main reason why I have found in the last few years that I have chosen exactly the right degree for me – I have been able to explore and develop new interests that I would never before have encountered and, in turn, this has led me down a number of exciting and unusual lines of research.

That’s all for now,


Image Attribution

Fig. 1 – L0000838 Section of the brain, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Title page: ‘Anatomy of the brain.’ 1802 The Anatomy of the Brain Explained in a Series of Engravings Bell, Sir Charles Published: 1802 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Fig. 2 – L0019727 Gautier d’Agoty, mezzotint ecorche female torso, back, 1746 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Fig. 3 – An experiment from William Harvey’s Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, (Public Domain Image)


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