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The history of medicine tells different stories and different truths depending on the questions we ask and the concerns we raise.

Explore some of the multiple meanings people have found in the history of medicine within the United States. See how, during the last 200 years, people have created and used history of medicine as weapon, as inspiration, as edifice, as politics, as profession, and as today's news.

Physicians have used medical history to increase their understanding, to unify their profession, to develop a vision of the future of medicine, and to provide better medical care to their patients.

History is like a kaleidoscope providing different meanings and content to different viewers as they adjust their focus to find answers to ever-changing questions. Thus, people are continually creating and recreating history. That's why there is always something new in the past.


History as WEAPON

In the 19th century, contending factions in the deeply divided medical profession used history as a weapon. This division of medicine into rival factions was not merely an American phenomenon. Practitioners belonging to rival groups wrote histories that revealed their triumphs over the wrong-headed practices of their competitors or the inevitable progress of their own favorite ideas and institutions.

Many people viewed doctors' claims to professional authority with suspicion. Medical practitioners, with licenses granted because of approved levels of training, had to prove their ability within a bitterly competitive marketplace.

Medical sects proliferated, each claiming to have the most effective medical treatments. All practitioners vied for the attention and financially loyalty of patients.

In this cacophony of competing claims, a group of physicians founded the American Medical Association in 1847 to create an authoritative basis for the medical profession as we know it today.

Title page and frontispiece of A Narrative, of the Life and Medical Discoveries of Samuel Thomson. The frontispiece on the left page has a head and shoulders, right pose of Samuel Thomson.
Open to show the title page of Homeopathy, and its kindred delusions by Oliver Wendell Holmes and the bleed-through of a letter opposite of the title page.
A group of four physicians sit in consultation, two with walking sticks to their noses, while the patient looks on from his bed.


Black and white half length, full face, seated at desk covered with books and papers, hand to chin of William Osler.
Pages 552 and 553 of The Life of Sir William Osler by Harvey Cushing. Page 553 features snapshots of Osler at the bedside by T. W. Clarke. The four snapshots of bedside visits are titled inspection, palpatation, ausculation, and contemplation.
Two Centuries of American Medicine 1776-1976 by James Bordley, III, M.D., and A. McGehee Harvey, M.D. open on pages 20 and 21 to show the section on efforts to effect improvement of medical education 1840-1870. On page 21 is an exterior view of the Chemical Laboratory of the University of Michigan in the 1870s.
Black and white photograph of a pharmacology laboratory featuring students at various tables performing scientific experiments.


By the turn of the 20th century, the American Medical Association had mostly succeeded in winning its struggle for legitimacy and the medical profession was reorganizing under the banner of modern science. At this juncture, medical history became a means of preserving the best of traditional values at a time of rapid change.

New forms of medical education promoted the research ideal and clearly represented the new scientific spirit in medicine. But the increased emphasis on the "science" of the profession created anxieties among some practitioners and professors that the humanistic side of medical care would be lost. Medicine would cease being an art and a calling, becoming instead a technical discipline.

At Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, physician and professor of medicine William Osler used his passion for old books to inspire students with the virtues of history. Osler taught his students to model themselves on the exemplary lives of the great physicians of the past who embodied clinical wisdom and the values of courage, dedication, and empathy. Osler and his followers used history to celebrate the highest ideals of a scientific, yet sensitive and selfless, profession.


History as EDIFICE

The explosive increase in scientific knowledge at the turn of the 20th century generated new problems but also stimulated innovative solutions. If people were going to be able to use the rapidly accumulating information, it had to be organized and made accessible. Universities, branches of the federal government, and municipalities constructed great edifices in which library professionals could catalog and scholars could synthesize this new knowledge.

Leaders in medicine, like librarian, building designer, and surgeon John Shaw Billings and physician, pathologist, and educator William Henry Welch, also built monumental libraries with the intention of bringing order to the overwhelming proliferation and threatening fragmentation of medical knowledge. Within these libraries, people gathered knowledge, recorded it in bibliographies, indexed it, and made it widely accessible. Welch believed the library was the foundation and unification of all medical knowledge, the history of medicine its synthesis and capstone, and the full-time professional historian the expert interpreter of its collections.

Exterior view of a red building. Trees line the front facade; U.S. flag hangs in front of the building; trolley tracks are in the foreground.
Interior view of Library and Museum of the Surgeon General's Office. John Shaw Billings is sitting at a table in the middle of Library Hall; Thomas W. Wise sits at a desk resting his elbow on the back of the chair. The three tier stacks are in the background, portraits are hanging off the second tier. A book truck with a duster is on the ground floor. Tables and chairs are in the foreground of the reading room. Windows run along the walls on all three tiers. There appears to be a sky light.
An Introduction to the History of Medicine, with Medical Chronology, Bibliographic Data and Test Questions by Fielding Garrison open to page 134 and 135. On page 134 on the left side is an illustration of a man with zodiac signs drawn over his body. On page 135 are two illustrations on the bottom. The left one is showing the points for blood-letting under the signs of the Zodiac. The right illustration is wound man showing a man with wounds from many different kinds of weapons.
John Shaw Billings: A Memoir by Fielding Garrison open to page 296 and 297 describing the beginning of the New York Public Library.


A black and white photograph of the .Victor Robinson standing, three quarter length, front; hands in pockets.
Plain wrapper cover of Pioneers of Birth Control in England and America by Victor Robinson. A cream sticker with the NLM call number is in the upper left corner of the cover.
Page 37 of Henry E. Sigerist's book Civilization and Disease which discusses the importance of physical environment.
Pages 94 and 95 of Henry Sigerist's Medicine and Human Welfare book. These pages discuss his views on all citizens' right to health.

History as POLITICS

The Great Depression of the 1930s led to the organization of the unemployed, the increasing power of American labor, and the resurgence of the political left. Within medical circles, proposals for "socialized medicine" and national health insurance, the development of prepaid medical care experiments, and the establishment of Blue Cross health insurance plans all signaled a radical questioning of the traditional organization of private medical practice.

A generation of politically active of and idealistic young physicians, looking for visionary leadership, found inspiration in the work and ideas of prolific scholar and leading historian of medicine Henry E. Sigerist. Swept up in enthusiasm by the political currents of that turbulent decade, Sigerist presented history as a dynamic force moving inevitably toward a utopian and egalitarian future. He proposed that physicians, as the vanguard of a progressive movement for health and social justice, be the organizers of a new system of medical care for all people.



In the quarter century after World War II, the discipline of the history of medicine underwent dramatic change fueled by the spectacular development of science and science-based industry. A lavishly funded research enterprise attracted widespread public interest and spawned a new field of scholarship: the history of science.

This new professional field exerted a strong influence on the history of medicine and drew renewed attention to the growth of medical science. The more cautious political climate of the 1950s and the proliferation of academic subdisciplines that accompanied the expansion of universities and professional schools also influenced the history of medicine.

When historians of medicine wrote about social or institutional developments during this period, they generally directed their attention to subjects that were not politically controversial. They seemed to cultivate their discipline more for its own sake than to serve the needs of the medical profession or the general public.

Head and shoulders, full face black and white photograph of Richard Harris Shryock. The photograph is autographed in the bottom right corner.
Color cover of Networks of Innovation: Vaccine Development at Merck, Sharp and Dohme, and Mulford, 1895-1995 by Louis Galambos with Jane Eliot Sewell featuring a head and shoulders right side view of a man in a white lab coat looking at a microscope.
Black and white photograph of Charles D. O'Malley half length, turned to right, wearing glasses; seated at desk, reading book; in front of bookcase.
Black and white photograph of Owsei Temkin. It is a half length, with Temkin seated at a table with his arms on table in front of bookcase.


Cream colored cover of Dying for Work: Worker's Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, editors.
No Magic Bullet by Allan M. Brandt open to show two pages of four veneral disease posters.
Color photograph of Susan Lederer shaking President Bill Clinton's hand. At the bottom is written To Susan with appreciation and it is signed Bill Clinton.
Pages 410 and 411 of Lawrence O. Gostin, Peter S. Arno, and Allan M. Brandt's article FDA Regulation of Tobacco Advertising and Youth Smoking: Historical, Social, and Constitutional Perspectives.

History as TODAY’S NEWS

In the late 1960s, when science and medicine, in many ways, were at the height of their power, the very structure of professional authority came under question. The calm of the academy was disturbed by the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements, and by demands for environmental protection, occupational safety, and reproductive rights, as the younger generation declared its disenchantment with the status quo.

In this context, medical historians who had been trained in the burgeoning graduate programs of the 1960s reached for a broader relevance. Emulating the scholarly standards of their mentors, they also nurtured an ideal of political engagement and sought out new audiences. They began to articulate a public relevance for the history of medicine by addressing medical professionals and policy makers, testifying before public agencies and commissions, appearing in court and in Congress, and interpreting history in popular exhibitions, magazines, films, and public television programs. The history of medicine thus emerged from the academy to become part of today's news.

About the Exhibition

So, What’s New in the Past?: The Multiple Meanings of Medical History explores how the history of medicine has told different stories and different truths over time depending on the questions asked and concerns raised. A 1997 collaboration between the Elizabeth Fee, who was newly appointed chief of the History of Medicine Division and historian of medicine Ted Brown, the National Library of Medicine featured the exhibition in the lobby of the building lobby July 7, 1997– September 30, 1997.

In 2004, Young Rhee and Roxanne Beatty, staff of the History of Medicine Division, adapted the script and images of the assets that were on display in 1997 to an online exhibition.

In 2021, the Exhibition Program refreshed the earlier online exhibition.

Exhibition Program

Patricia Tuohy
Head, Exhibition Program

Jiwon Kim
Exhibition Educator

Erika Mills
Community Outreach Coordinator

Carrissa Lindmark
Pathways Intern

Jane Markowitz
Traveling Services Coordinator

Tannaz Motevalli
Exhibition Coordinator

Web Design

Alla Vysokolova
Applications Branch, Office of Computer and Communications Systems

Special Acknowledgements

History of Medicine Division

Jeffrey Reznick, PhD
Chief, History of Medicine Division

Kenneth Koyle
Deputy Chief

Elizabeth Mullen
Manager, Web Development and Social Media

Office of Computer and Communications Systems

Wei Ma
Chief, Applications Branch

Winston Churchill
Applications Branch

Joe Potvin
Applications Branch

Ying Sun
Applications Branch