Logo for So, What's New in the Past?

So, What’s New in the Past?

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:

A red book cover with yellow text and large white font in a black box
AIDS: The Burdens of History, Elizabeth Fee and Daniel Fox (eds.), 1988
National Library of Medicine #8909860

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.


Illustration of a white being beaten with a stick by another white man, while a third a third times the beatings
Les Homéopathes: 2ème Traitement-Similia Similibus, Courbatura Batonibus (The Homeopaths: 2nd Treatment-Similia Similibus, Courbatura Batonibus), Charles Émile Jacque, 1880s
National Library of Medicine #101393245

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.


An open book showing text and anatomical diagrams
An Introduction to the History of Medicine, with Medical Chronology, Bibliographic Data and Test Questions, Fielding H. Garrison, MD, Philadelphia, 1914
National Library of Medicine #54830780R

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.

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