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Health Humanities - Medical History

Some of the oldest texts in the world are surpisingly mundane, legal squabbles in ancient Mesopotamia, grain accounts around the Mediterrean etc...But some of those writings, either on clay tablets or on early pressed paper, contain medical techniques. From trepanning in ancient Peru, the theory of the four humors in Greece, herbal teas in China or new operating techniques in America, the history of medicine and surgery is as complicated as humanity itself. What is just as fascinating as the progress (or lackthereof) in this field are the people and philosophies behind such study. 

In the 18th century B.C.E, some of the earliest laws regarding medical practice were codified by Hammurabi, King of Babylonia. “If the doctor, in opening an abscess, shall kill the patient, his hands shall be cut off.” By the 1st century B.C.E. in India the writings on medicine, Charaka-samhita, included an impressive list of diseases including various kinds of fevers, tuberculosis and smallpox. Ancient texts were followed, questioned, rejected or improved upon over the centuries. Theories first proposed in antiquity, such as Galen's Four Humors, were still being implemented through the 18th century, even as his anatomical writings were corrected in the late 16th. By the 1840s anesthesia was being implemented in surgery, by the end of the 19th century antiseptic practices were widespread on multiple continents.

In the contemporary era the study of medicine is ongoing, we are still discovering how the human body works, how viruses affect that body, and push the limits of our current technology in the search for new treatments. So long as there are questions to answer, history will keep being written.  

(Source: NLM Catalog)

"Plan of the arotic system", Sir Charles Bell, ca. late 18-19th century

A Timeline of Medical History

The history of medicine is as old as humanity itself, with evidence of set bones and disease to be found in the bones of our earliest ancestors. It would be impossible to list every major event in that history, but here a few of the highlights. (Source: Hist of Med Timeline, Hajar, Heart Views 2015.)

2600 BCE The Egyptian Imhotep describes the diagnosis and treatment of 200 diseases

460 BCE Birth of Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine begins the scientific study of medicine and prescribes a form of aspirin

ca 60 CE Pedanius Dioscorides writes De Materia Medica

910 Persian physician Rhazes identifies smallpox

1010 Avicenna writes The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine

1489 Leonardo da Vinci dissects corpses

1590 Zacharius Jannssen invents the microscope

1747 James Lind publishes his Treatise of the Scurvy stating that citrus fruits prevent scurvy

1800 Sir Humphry Davy discovers the anesthetics properties of nitrous oxide

1857 Louis Pasteur identifies germs as clause of disease

1867 Joseph Lister develops the use of antiseptic surgical methods and publishes Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery

1895 Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovers X-rays

1922 Insulin first used to treat diabetes

1928 Sir Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

1945 First vaccine developed for influenza

1955 Jonas Salk develops the first polio vaccine

1975 Robert S. Ledley invents CAT-Scans

1980 Smallpox is eradicated

1983 HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is identified

2006 First vaccine to target a cause of cancer

2012 PrEP apparoved by the FDA for HIV patients

2020 First vaccine for Covid-19 distributed

2021 A vaccine for Malaria is approved

NEJM History of Medicine

Ancient Roots, Modern Medicine

History Articles of Interest

Walt Whitman and the Art of Nursing

Strickler, J. (2024). Walt Whitman and the Art of Nursing. Nursing, 54 (5), 45-47. doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0001009996.69647.4d.

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering... these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love... these are what we stay alive for.” —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 

Much of the development of the nursing profession can be attributed to the foundation laid by well-known founding figures such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, and Dorothea Dix. However, the current role of nursing has also been built by the work of figures who may be lesser known or known more by their contributions away from direct patient care. Similarly, the contributions of these other figures may not fall along the gender, racial, or sexuality lines generally associated with nursing. A case in point, males currently comprise 14% of nursing, nurses of racial and ethnic minorities represent 30%, and nurses who identify as LGBTQAI are 9%. Among the less-known contributors who have added much to the early foundation of the nursing profession is Walt Whitman, a notable American poet famously recognized for his work, Leaves of Grass . This article reviews the life of Walt Whitman and his legacy related to nursing care."

Measles, Media and Memory: Journalism’s Role in Framing Collective Memory of Disease

Conis, E., Hoenicke, S. Measles, Media and Memory: Journalism’s Role in Framing Collective Memory of Disease. J Med Humanit (2021).

"Language used to describe measles in the press has altered significantly over the last sixty years, a shift that reflects changing perceptions of the disease within the medical community as well as broader changes in public health discourse. California, one of the most populous U.S. states and seat of the 2015 measles outbreak originating at Disneyland, presents an opportunity for observing these changes. This article offers a longitudinal case study of five decades of measles news coverage by the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, which represented two of the largest news markets in California when the measles vaccine was released, in 1963, and during the 2015 outbreak. Measles reporting during this period displays patterns pointing to an active role for journalists in shaping public understanding of health and medical matters, especially as they recede from public memory, through the employment of available and circulating political and cultural frames. Moreover, journalistic frames in this period of reporting incorporated presentist descriptions of the disease, which imposed present values on the medical past, and which were constructed of decontextualized historical references that supported prevailing contemporary notions of the disease. Framing and the tendency toward presentism, in the context of shifting public health discourse, had the effect of communicating an increasingly severe sounding disease over time, and of shifting blame for that disease’s spread from nature to government to individuals. Journalistic framing and causal stories have much power to shape public understanding of medical matters as they recede from public memory."


Stanley B. Burns M.D. Historic Medical Photography Collection Acquired by Yale

Lit Med Magazine, 2021.

"The Stanley B. Burns M.D. Historic Medical Photography Collection was recently acquired by the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Historical Library at Yale University. Dr. Burns, a faculty member in the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU Langone Health, began collecting photographs that document the evolution of medicine in 1975, and has amassed more than a million images. Yale’s acquisition includes more than 15,000 of these images, as well as Dr. Burns’ papers, containing over 50 years of his work in the medical humanities and medical history. Here, Dr. Burns is interviewed by David Oshinsky, PhD, director of the Division of Medical Humanities at NYU Langone Health and professor of history at NYU."


A surgeon and a gentleman: the life of James Barry

Tishma, Mariel, Hektoen International, Volume 12, Issue 3 – Summer (2020).

"In November of 1809, a ship set sail from London towards Edinburgh. Aboard was a young man with roughly cut red hair traveling with his aunt. On arrival, he would enroll in medical school at the University of Edinburgh, and graduate MD three years later. In his later successful career as a military surgeon he would advocate for public health, and perform one of the first Cesarean sections in which both mother and baby survived. His name was James Miranda Steuart Barry. But another story dominates the legacy of this skilled surgeon; Dr. James Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley. (This article will use male pronouns and the name Dr. James Barry throughout.) Dr. Barry’s decision to live and practice medicine as a man for over fifty years has come to define him, for better and for worse. One may ask, did James Barry live as a man to advance his career? Was he transgender? Or did he act outside of these boundaries entirely?"

Hidden Figures in Medicine

Not all accomplishments in academia are treated equal in the history books. As such, the canon of medical milestones, as with many realms of study, often has holes in it where forgotten or little known names should fit. Again, this is no comphehensive list, but one that works as an important addendum to the accepted lineage. (Sources: Women in Medicine & Minorities in Medicine , Uni AL Birgminham)

ca 2700 BCE Meit Ptah, Egyptian physician  

ca 2600 BCE Peseshet was another female physician, enjoyed the title of "Lady Overseer of the Female Physicians." 

ca 200-400 CE Metrodora of Greece penned the oldest medical book known to have been written by a woman, On the Diseases and Cures of Women

1098 Hildegard of Bingen is born in Rheinhesse. She wrote Subtililates Diversarum Naturarum Creaturarum (The Subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Created Things), in which she laid out suggested medical remedies for common ailments  

ca 17th century Lucas Santomee Peters is the first African physician to practice in the American colonies (by special dispensation)

1789-90  James Derham, a former slave, saves more patients of the plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia than any other physician 

1837 James McCune becomes the first African American to earn a medical degree (in Scotland as the US would not admit him)

1847 David Jones Peck is the first African American to earn a medical degree from an American university 

1849 Elizabeth Blackwell is the first woman to gain a medical degree from Geneva Medical College in New York

1864 Rebecca Lee Crumpler becomes the first African American woman to attain a degree as a physician

1909 Mary Headley Trevino de Edgerton became among the first Tejanos to attend medical school in Texas

1951 Mildred Jefferson is the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School

1990 Antonia Novello is named the first female Surgeon General in the United States

History Resources

Literature Arts Medicine Database

From New York University, this database has information on books, film and various other media which meet at the intersection of medicine and the humanities. Examples include: editorials on history books, film reviews, citation information etc.   


History of Medicine at the National Library

The National Library of Medicine provides a huge archive online of documents, film, writings & rare books all realted to the history of the medical field. Here you can find what's on virtual display, browse exhibitions & comb through the journals of historical research.


History of Medicine at McGill

Links to digital collections from across the globe, image databases, essays, exhibitions and many other subjects are included on this library guide. Explore the listings here for a wide variety of topics under the umbrealla of history.


Medicine in Maryland 1752 - 1920

"Improvements in the medical care of Baltimoreans was dependent upon the professionalization of doctors and the institutionalization of medical education advocated by the University of Maryland School of Medicine, practiced in its clinical arm, the Baltimore Infirmary, and later adopted by hospitals and medical schools through the city. The introduction of clinical medical was a significant step in medical education and practice, permitting medical students to receive first-hand experience in the diagnosis and treatment of patients, learning through observation and hands-on experience rather than lectures and readings. Incorporating clinical education into the medical curriculum and expansion of teaching privileges in hospitals across the city produced doctors with practical experience in anatomy, clinical diagnosis, and treatment of disease. This shift in medical education and practice gave rise to hospitals that were no longer places to die, but havens to get well."