Medical History in the Undergraduate Medical Curriculum

Susan E. Lederer
Ellen S. More, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Joel D. Howell

Document Type Article


History has long played a role in the education of American physicians, but the uses of medicine's past have changed over time. In the late nineteenth century, some physicians taught medical history to their students to supply a sense of continuity with professional traditions in times of rapid and bewildering change. Other physicians believed that instruction in medical history would impart a sense of refinement to medical practitioners. In the late twentieth century, medical history is increasingly viewed as a significant dimension of the professional, intellectual, and humanistic development of medical students. Further, it is one of the principal means by which recent, radical changes in health care can be given needed perspective. The knowledge that medicine and the medical sciences are fundamentally social enterprises is an important lesson for medical students. Through exposure to the history of health care, students also learn that medical knowledge is itself subject to change and is acquired in specific contexts. In the 1990s, medical history is taught in a variety of settings. In some schools, history is integrated into the teaching of medical humanities. Where medical history is institutionally distinct from the humanities, courses in medical history may be either elective or required. In order to reach students at every stage of their medical education, historians and clinicians can join forces to teach history in innovative and flexible programs.