What is Medical History?

What is Medical History?
By John C. Burnham, PhD

Medical history is a rapidly expanding field of both general interest and specialized research. Some medical history focuses on the history of healers and health care, particularly the medical and nursing professions. Other kinds of medical history trace the growth and change in medical knowledge from ancient roots to classic discoveries and recent team research. Many students of medical history try to learn about the experience of people who were ill and who sought healing. Other students try to follow the ways in which different diseases affected humans. Still others trace the many ways in which various societies at times in the past tried to institute preventive and public health measures to keep health hazards away from inhabitants.

Virtually any historical aspect of the interaction between medical efforts and society now attracts many scholars—the politics and economics of medical care, military medicine, medical technology, biomedical science. Some scholars hold that in both ancient and modern times, societies medicalized social problems—and sometimes shifted social problems out of the realm of local medical ideas.

Much advanced research in medical history is now highly specialized, searching for the global significance of limited episodes and local activities of the past. Yet other efforts turn to narratives of how one development or another came to be.

These explorations into the past are enriched by reading the words written centuries or millennia ago. One can oneself examine old books and journals that indicate how people of previous generations viewed illness, health, and healers. Or there are pictures and material artifacts that also help to bring into the present a vivid sense of how illness, treatment, prevention, and institutional efforts looked to people of another time.

For those who currently work in the health field, learning about the past of illness and healing is particularly important. In an age emphasizing specialization, the history of medicine offers the most important means by which the underlying unity of medicine can be understood. A unique introductory account of the current practice of medical history is a book that has come out of the Ohio State University Medical Heritage Center: John Burnham, What Is Medical History? (Polity Press, 2005).