How should the History of Medicine be studied?

The teaching of Medical History in Medical Schools has largely been a token gesture and with increasing pressure on the curriculum many have given up any attempt at formal teaching. Considering the scope of the subject and the practicality of producing a comprehensive teaching course, this is not surprising, And yet, most doctors feel that a knowledge of our medical past is important in our practice of medicine today. So how can we continue to enthuse and impart details of our medical heritage to our successors when it is more essential that they are exposed to the clinical skills of practising medicine.

It will perhaps be of interest to hear how we are approaching this problem in Sheffield University Medical School. At the very beginning of the MB ChB programme students undertake a 6-week ‘Student Selected Component on the History of Medicine’ in which they choose one essay title from a list of 270 that span the history of medicine from Ancient Egypt to the present day. The primary purpose of this assignment is to encourage students to develop their generic skills in information searching and synthesis, critical analysis, academic writing, the use of referencing systems and the avoidance of plagiarism. The history of medicine was chosen as the focus for this assignment as a topic that is hopefully of interest to all medical students at the very start of their careers, giving them a chance to consider medicine’s roots as they embark on their journey to become its future.

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Over the past three years, history of medicine exhibitions have also been displayed in the medical school foyer. This started with ‘Sheffield Cares for the Wounded’ in 2014, commemorating the role of Sheffield doctors in a field ambulance on the Western Front in World War One as well as those caring for the wounded returning to Sheffield. Apart from the history of their own medical school, students learnt about the evacuation techniques developed then and refined today. This was followed by more focussed exhibitions on ‘Blood Letting’ dealing with leaches, cupping and scarification and more recently with ‘Inoculation and Vaccination’. Such exhibitions require a secure, alarmed, display cabinet which was obtained with financial support from the Medical School and Sheffield’s Charitable Trusts and which, although initially expensive, now enables us to borrow documents and precious artefacts from private and public collections as well as facilitating display of items from our own Medical School’s past history.

We think this dual approach is one way of keeping alive the study of the History of Medicine in our medical schools. Although requiring enthusiastic volunteers and financial support, it is, we think, more likely that attractive exhibitions such as these will more easily capture the interest of the average medical student than didactic teaching.

Derek R. Cullen , Consultant Physician Emeritus
Julian L. Burton, Senior Teaching Fellow, Academic Unit of Medical Education.

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One Comment

  1. ” Blood letting with LEACHES”? Leach – a perforated vessel or trough used for making lye from wood ash …; the pit in which tan liquors are mixed; the brine which drains from the salt .. when the salt is drawn out; a quantity of wood ash through which water passes and thus imbibes the alkali. (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). Perhaps it is the study of the English language which needs help – not just the History of Medicine?

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