Teaching Medical History

Dissecting Room, c.1900

At Liverpool University, we’ve recently had the externals in. Most universities will send out the materials from the courses they teach for external examiners to look over and ensure certain standards are being upheld. At Liverpool, we do things a little differently. We have the externals come up to Liverpool for a few days at the end of the year to sit surrounded by piles of essays, exam scripts, marksheets and module handbooks. It must be a huge amount of work for them to get through in those few days, but it really does bring them into the academic life of the department.

This often means sitting down with the person reviewing your teaching over the past year and hearing what they think. That might not always be a welcome encounter if their view is less than favourable. Luckily for me, the respected historian who has been external examiner for most of my teaching treats this as part of his mentoring junior academics. I take seriously his view of my teaching, so I was very pleased by what he had to say this year.

In particular, he felt the teaching of medical history was generating some extremely sophisticated work from undergraduate students. Certainly during my time at Liverpool I’ve been in good company alongside Dr Stephen Kenny, who works on slave bodies in American history, and Dr Sally Sheard, who teaches on medicine and healthcare in modern Britain. Meanwhile my own students produced some excellent work on the histories of disability, of women as patients and providers of healthcare, and exploring medical charity as a meeting ground for rich and poor. Across our diverse areas of teaching, it was noted that it was on these medical history themes that students were performing best. And this begs a simple question: why?

What is it about medical history that makes students produce work of a particularly sophisticated nature?

There is something ubiquitous about the experience of sickness that gives medical history an immediately obvious relevance that perhaps political or economic history might lack. Put bluntly, we all have bodies and we can’t get away from them. But I suspect the significance of the body here is not only that it is familiar, but also at the same time that it is unfamiliar. Unfamiliar as a scholarly subject. Upon arriving at university, most students tend to have a fairly traditional idea of what History is and how it is studied. Turning attention from the body politic to the body itself prompts us to question what exactly we think History is. What, if anything, is off limits in our study?

Students appear to respond well to unusual entry points into historical themes. The body as a way in to the politics of the past, for example with my own students using the experience of disabled veterans after the First World War to examine wider issues of masculinity and social reconstruction, is one. And I think this is true not only intellectually but also methodologically, for both unusual subjects and unusual sources. Seminars where students simply discuss a set reading can work well, depending on how good the set text is and how insightful and engaged the students are. But students are prompted to think about these same matters differently and deeper when they are presented with less familiar primary sources.

For this reason I tend to make rather extensive in-class use of primary sources as a way to explore and interrogate changing political, social and cultural ideas in the past. This might include visual sources, such as my beloved collection of election posters, used to identify the fault-lines of political debate in the 1920s, or a selection of images to consider how women’s historians, gender historians and body historians might all approach the same subject in different ways. Using literary sources to shed light on the First World War is hardly novel, but my students have also used them to examine contemporary attitudes towards the medical profession, philanthropy and changing gender roles. 

We see two very different impressions of public opinion of doctors if we put two sources from the 1880s alongside each other. Luke Fildes’ painting (below) was a celebration of medical compassion, a personal way to show his gratitude for the doctor who had looked after his own son when taken ill. Meanwhile Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, The Body Snatcher, was inspired by the public fascination with grave-robbing scandals such as Burke and Hare. The fact that this story was first published in the 1884 Christmas special of the Pall Mall Gazette tells us something about the place of medical men within the gothic imaginings of the late-Victorian era.

Bringing the past to life with engaging materials is important for all good History teaching. That certainly could explain why students might be especially interested in a topic, but not necessarily why their work would end up being more sophisticated. My suspicion is that presenting students with these non-scholarly materials as a way in to the dominant or changing ideas governing the behaviours of another era gives them a license to think differently. You can agree or disagree with what an academic has written in their book or article, but responding to a Fildes or Stevenson requires something a little less predictable, especially for students still shaking off some rather conservative ideas about what is fair game in studying History.

Both methodologically and intellectually, medical history is a rich vein for the subjects and the sources that can prompt students to think differently. Perhaps, somewhere in there, is the beginnings of a half-decent answer to the question of why it should be on medical history topics that our students produce their most sophisticated work.

‘The Doctor’ by Sir Luke Fildes, 1891

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