Medicinens historie


Why study the History of Medicine?

Throughout human history, people have been concerned with health and disease, birth, life and death, pleasure and pain - both as patients and as providers of treatment, care and guidance. History of medicine as an academic discipline is interested in the questions of how individual people, and societies at large, have experienced and responded to these fundamental givens of the human condition, how these experiences and responses have changed through time, and how these changes can be explained by reference to the historical and cultural contexts in which they occurred.

History of medicine is much more than the history of a small elite of doctors and medical scientists making great discoveries in laboratories. The patient is also very much part of the picture. Throughout history, health and disease have been matters of major concern which affected everyone and had a profound effect on the way people lived, what they ate and drank, how they organised their private and public hygiene and healthcare, and how they coped - physically as well as spiritually - with pain, illness and death.

Consequently, the history of medicine studies the role of disease and healing in the day-to-day life of ordinary people. It covers the relations between patients and doctors and their mutual expectations, the variety of health-suppliers in the 'medical market-place', the social position of healers and their professional upbringing, and the ethical standards and expectations they were required to live up to. And it also covers the material history of the past, the study of the history of diseases and developments in palaeopathology (DNA analysis, etc).

We are all actual or potential patients, players on the health market, receivers and shapers of attitudes, rules and legislation affecting our health and healthcare. Being affected immediately, we are well advised to think about questions such as the following:

  • How have people and civilisations in the past defined health, disease and quality of life? How have they experienced and understood phenomena such as disease, pain, death, how have they 'constructed' these phenomena and contextualised them?
  • How were such responses related to ideas about mind and body, about the environment, about natural and supernatural causation, about moral and legal responsibility and blame?
  • How did these ideas translate into science, research and practice, and what social, cultural and institutional implications did these have?
  • How were 'healthcare systems' created and organised? How did 'scientific' medicine arise?
  • What status did the practitioners or 'providers' of medical treatment enjoy? How did they arrive at their views, theories and practices?
  • How did they communicate these to their colleagues and wider audiences? What rhetorical and argumentative techniques did they use in order to justify their practice and to persuade their patients that they were in good hands?
  • How was medical authority established and maintained, and how were claims to competence justified?
  • What new opportunities did the development of biomedicine create, and what were the ethical and legal issues medicine had to face?

The answers to these question tell us something about the wider context of moral, social and cultural values of a society. As such, they are of interest also to those whose motivation to engage in the subject is not primarily medical. As the comparative history of medicine and science has shown, societies react to these phenomena in different ways, and it is interesting and illuminating to compare similarities and differences between these reactions, since they often reflect deeper differences in social and cultural values.

History of medicine is by definition an interdisciplinary field, involving historians, classicists, ethicists, linguists and literary scholars, medics, archaeologists and environmental historians, art historians, social scientists, medical anthropologists, philosophers and historians of science and ideas, and historians of religion. Themes relating to health and illness and medical texts have enjoyed a surge of interest from students in philosophy, literature, linguistics and fine art. Likewise, the social and cultural history of medicine, and the interface between medicine, magic and religion has proved a remarkably fruitful area of research; and the same applies to areas such as women and gender studies and studies into 'the body'