History at the heart of medicine

May 16, 2024 | Blog, Publications

Bellis RT, Cooper F, Knoeff R, McGuire C, Parry M, Tybjerg K, Verwaal, RE, Woods A. History at the heart of medicine [version 1; peer review: awaiting peer review]. Wellcome Open Research 9 (2024), 249. (https://doi.org/10.12688/wellcomeopenres.21229.1)


‘History at the Heart of Medicine’ was originally conceived of at a workshop at the Groningen Centre for Health and Humanities in June 2023. The authors worked together to answer how the history of medicine and medical humanities could be more closely integrated with each other and with medicine. We identified that the two fields are typically perceived to have different levels of willingness to engage with policy and intervene directly in medical practices. Although medical history has tended towards greater discretion in these respects, we found that history is a vital part of both medicine and the medical humanities. We make a positive case for history not as prescriptive, but as generative of possible worlds and imagined futures.



With a focus on the challenges of today and tomorrow in the critical medical humanities the role of history is often overlooked. Yet history and medicine are closely intertwined. Right now, with the surfacing of knotty problems such as changing demographics, chronic pain, loneliness and Long Covid – and the consequent necessity to change directions and policies – history seems more urgent than ever. However, historians of medicine have sometimes been reticent to play a role in medicine and policymaking. The recent and welcome development of the critical medical humanities has intervened in medicine in important ways, but often without clear engagement with the history of medicine. In this letter, we make a renewed case for coherence and collaboration between history of medicine, medicine, and medical humanities, emphasising the continuity and links between all three. The skills and focus of the historian of medicine bring crucial historical context to the table, enabling better understanding of medical collecting, new imaginative futures, profound critiques of key medical concepts, and understandings of the body through time. By emphasising what historians can do for medicine and medical humanities, we call for building historical work into how medicine, illness and health are understood now and in the future. We suggest three potential roles for historians: keepers of memories, conversation partners, and futurist thinkers.