Revised 8 December 2017
Inaugurated in 1970, our Society exists to educate the public in the social history of medicine. To do so, we organise and support conferences, promote teaching and research, and disseminate work through our periodicals and book series. While our audience is broad and our work interdisciplinary, most of our members are historians interested in interpreting ‘social’ and ‘medicine’ as broadly as possible in the histories that we write and teach, and valuing the study of the past for its own sake.
Our founders were predominantly medical and social workers interested in using history to better understand the relationship between the social sciences and medicine, as a basis for policy formation in the present. As the Society developed, members came to emphasise the importance of studying past medical cultures on their own terms. As social historians of medicine, our work oscillates between studying the past for its own sake and revealing the current social and political implications of histories of health and illness.
Through our work, social historians of medicine and health highlight the ever-changing and provisional nature of the present while also emphasising continuities of behaviours, concerns and inequalities. We raise questions about historically produced assumptions that influence present-day attitudes and policies. We show how medicine and health care are deeply embedded social enterprises and how many aspects of human health are shaped by a wide range of non-medical factors. We use medicine and healing as lenses for exploring different experiences of health and disease, which are affected by class, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. We reveal the historical contingency of disease categories, disease burdens and medical knowledge, and anchor the production and circulation of this knowledge to social, political and economic contexts.
The Inspirational and Foundational
In our work, which draws upon many disciplinary approaches, we share stories that inspire, move, entertain and intrigue. Some view the histories we produce as an important resource to suggest paths for future scientific and medical breakthroughs. Others stress the importance of understanding past worlds on their own terms, using the history of medicine to develop historical tools, methodology and knowledge in order to deepen our understanding of the past. Our work is crucial for the development of healthcare providers’ professional identities and competencies. It provides a foundation of knowledge for health professionals to understand and critique notions of therapeutic efficacy and progress, and to interpret changing causes of disease. It permits them to understand the constantly changing nature of healthcare systems, the diverse range of individuals’ bodily and illness experiences, and to draw out and record perceptive and sensitive patient histories. But our work is also fundamentally historical. We build on the research and approaches of fellow historians to illuminate histories of health and illness, whether or not the persons described therein engaged with medical practitioners. And we teach our students historical skills and methods alongside an appreciation for the past on its own terms.
Observing, honouring and interpreting history is a fundamental civic responsibility. To fully understand ourselves in the present, we must be able to identify the ways our thoughts, actions and institutions echo those of our predecessors and the ways in which they differ. Historians of medicine and health, together with our colleagues in archives and museums, work to uncover, authenticate, interpret and preserve the material riches of the past. We draw wisdom from past successes. We shine light upon dangerous and unethical historical missteps. At the same time, we show how the values and categories used to evaluate these incidents themselves change over time. The social history of medicine also enhances current scientific and medical research. An in-depth knowledge of the past can prevent the inefficient, expensive and harmful duplication of past efforts, correct past misunderstandings and showcase what is truly novel in current investigations. We can also explore past ethical conflicts to better understand and safely navigate present-day dilemmas.
The Educational, Civic and Political
The history that we produce is vital, not only for helping to teach health professionals how to be skilled diagnosticians but also for educating taxpayers, journalists and elected officials, among others, on important health policy issues. We teach critical thinking using historical examples and encourage empathy, tolerance and breadth of analysis in making sense of the unfamiliar in the past, and in studying past practices and the social value attributed to them on their own terms. Our work helps citizens understand the historical circumstances shaping current healthcare systems and to use this understanding as a basis for both fostering institutional stability and driving political change.
“Why Do We Do What We Do? The Values of the Social History of Medicine,” Social History of Medicine, 2000, volume 33, issue 1, pp. 8-9, doi:10.1093/shm/hkz113.
Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. Please visit: https://academic.oup.com/shm/article/33/1/3/5679996