By Erika Mills ~
People continually create and recreate history, adjusting their focus to find answers to ever-changing questions. Over the past 200 years, physicians, scholars, and the public have used the history of medicine to define and unify the medical profession, advance scientific scholarship, influence popular and political discourse on social issues, and create a vision of the future. A new online 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 truths over time depending on the questions asked and concerns raised.
So, What’s New in the Past? represents the 1997 display of the same name, co-curated by Elizabeth Fee (1946–2018), who served as chief of the History of Medicine Division of the the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and later as the Library’s chief historian, and Ted Brown, a historian of medicine at University of Rochester. The online exhibition showcases NLM collection items featured in the original display and includes a supplemental bibliography of works reflective of the exhibition’s themes.
Here are some highlights from the exhibition:
Co-curator of So, What’s New in the Past? Elizabeth Fee studied social determinants to health, gender, public health, and health policy. Her groundbreaking work on the history of HIV/AIDS has influenced contemporary scholarship on LGBTQ+ health. She and health policy expert Daniel M. Fox edited AIDS: The Burdens of History, a collection of 12 essays that considers the social, medical, and geopolitical antecedents to the HIV/AIDS pandemic to understand the emergence of the disease and how it has affected different populations.
In the 19th century, competing factions divided the medical profession. Practitioners wrote histories that illustrated the efficacy of their treatments and beliefs while discrediting the practices and ideas of rival groups, weaponizing medical history in the contentious battle for dominance in the field. In this illustration, French artist Charles Émile Jacque ridicules the homeopaths, one of the leading medical sects at the time.
A proliferation of scientific knowledge at the turn of the 20th century created the need to store and organize new information and to make it accessible. In response, leaders in the medical profession, universities, and governments erected libraries where medical literature would be cataloged and used by scholars. An Introduction, written by renowned medical historian, physician, bibliographer, and medical librarian Fielding H. Garrison, became the standard text and general reference work for the history of medicine in the United States after it was published. Garrison, whose groundbreaking work advanced medical librarianship, spent over 40 years as a leader at the Army Medical Library, a forerunner to the National Library of Medicine.
To see more of So, What’s New in the Past?, visit the exhibition online.
Erika Mills is part of the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.