Promoting and Teaching the History of Medicine in a Medical School Curriculum*

Article excerpt


Since 2004, the Gaiter Health Sciences Library staff has participated in years I and ? of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine's medical doctor (MD) curriculum by offering a history of medicine seminar as part of the "Patient, Physician and Society" (PPS) course. The seminar's goals are to introduce students to the library's rare books and its special collections; to learn the social, cultural, and ethical aspects of medicine; and to improve communication skills. Because the MD curriculum is based on lifelong learning principles, students are encouraged to explore their interests in history by selecting a disease, health condition, or medical specialty and tracing it back in time; presenting their observations of what they learned to the seminar; and engaging in discussion about rare books and their content as a means of learning about the history of their profession.


Literature review

A review of the literature offers many articles promoting the value of teaching the history of medicine and the other health sciences in a school's curricula. Howell's course at the University of Michigan offers a useful example of incorporating the history of medicine into an MD curriculum [I]. Howell describes a fourth-year medical school elective course for students interested in a more in-depth study of historical topics. The course is limited to six students per month, is offered from one to three months during the year, meets twice weekly for three hours, and is highly participatory, not lecture driven. The student's course goal is to produce a research paper, an annotated bibliography, or a detailed research proposal. After the introductory week, the instructor and students discuss the students' proposals so that students learn from each other.

A somewhat different model is offered by Casey and Flannery [2]. At the University of Alabama, first-year students taking medical gross anatomy are required to visit the library's special collections to examine historical anatomy texts, specifically, Vesalius's De humani corporis fabrica, and "write an essay about what they learned" [2].

Burns suggests that it is in the context of medical humanities that "the history of medicine may yet find its more useful and congenial place in the medical curriculum" [3]. The model presented here is an example of this "useful and congenial place." The Northwestern seminar differs from Howell's model in several ways. A major difference is the course instructor: Howell holds both MD and doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees and appointments in the departments of internal medicine and history, while the authors of this brief communication are health sciences librarians. Howell's course emphasizes investigation and research on student topics using multiple sources and methods, which would lead to a publication or a plan for further research. The Northwestern seminar approaches the history of medicine from the weekly examination and use of rare books, covering several historical time periods. The use of rare books is similar to what Casey and Flannery report, though at Northwestern, the emphasis is on discussing the students' own observations about what they learn from history, using multiple titles rather than one or two anatomy texts.

Seminars in medical humanities

The Gaiter Library's history of medicine seminar is one selection out of several that year I and year ? students choose to fulfill the requirements of the PPS course. The seminars are managed and coordinated by the school's Medical Bioethics and Humanities Program. Other seminar choices include art and anatomy, physicians in films, human rights, the Black Death, and many more. The seminars in medical humanities are presented each winter quarter, with students attending one afternoon session per week for five weeks [4]. The seminar's educational goals are aimed at strengthening students' abilities [5] - including discussion of the social, cultural, and ethical aspects of medicine - and strengthening the students' communication skills. …