Applied History of Medicine



The Emergence of the Applied History of Medicine

Medical anthropology and medical sociology have deep roots in their disciplines, but an academically based history of medicine and health is more recent. Although as early as the1890s there were a few historians who considered themselves medical scholars, however, most who self-identified as medical historians were not academics, but clinicians with an interest in advances in medical knowledge and clinical practice. These clinicians produced narratives of medical "progress," often uninformed by the methods and practices of professional historians, anthropologists, sociologists, or literary critics. Consequently, these physician-medical historians were not concerned with the social and cultural context in which developments in medicine and health science took place.

In the 1970s, the whiggish and progressive narratives produced by physician (amateur) historians became the target of a new generation of professional historians who attempted to contextualize the social and cultural history of clinical diagnoses, disease classification, and medical interventions. These academic historians rightly insisted that the production of scientific knowledge was framed by political, intellectual and cultural constraints. Their revisionist history portrayed medical practice, research, and innovation as cultural constructs whose scientific claims often resembled belief systems. Viewing medical claims as no different from other belief systems, these historians were skeptical, if not hostile to an applied history of medicine or health. Cultural historians of medicine and health frequently expressed reservations about the activities of colleagues who engaged in applied and collaborative research. They particularly distrusted studies that relied on current understandings of disease mechanisms to explain earlier disease incarnations. As a result, the application of historical findings to current clinical issues and medical research remained suspect. Medical practitioners and laboratory scientists, often baffled by the vocabulary of much of this new cultural and social history and anthropology of medicine, found it difficult to recognize its value for translational research and medical practice.

In the 1990s, a new generation of applied historians of medicine, often trained in both medicine and history, emerged. Given their dual education, they were forced to confront a contradiction--one discipline had taught them that applied research was suspect, while the other expected them to translate their research into effective interventions. Moreover, the dominant view in medicine remained that, although history was interesting, its utility was didactic, to remind practitioners of past successes and failures. Because they felt comfortable in both disciples (or equally uncomfortable in either) these new medical historians challenged the dominant paradigm often by ignoring it. Most of all, they were persuaded that medical research uninformed by historical context could be as incomplete as an investigation of chronic disease that ignored genetics or immunology. This approach to the history of health and the health sciences has been increasingly recognized and encouraged at research universities with health sciences centers and it forms the foundation for Emory University's program in the Applied History of Medicine.

The Program in the Applied History of Medicine

Emory University's close proximity of the arts and sciences, the health sciences, and the other professional schools on one campus provides an ideal venue for the AHM program. The AHM serves as a clearing house and meeting ground for faculty and students wishing to participate in applied research and translational scholarship. The program sponsors lectures by researchers and scholars whose work exemplifies the applied history of medicine; it maintains a list of appropriate courses in applied history of health and health sciences throughout Emory University; and a list of associated faculty. The program is also linked to similar programs throughout the world. The AHM also serves as the home for a number of applied research projects, including the Kawasaki History Disease Project, a collaborative world-wide effort looking for the elusive cause of this childhood heart disease.