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The humanising power of medical history: responses to biomedicine in the 20th century United States
  1. John Harley Warner1,2
  1. 1History of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
  2. 2History American Studies, and the History of Science and Medicine, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA
  1. Correspondence to John Harley Warner, Section of the History of Medicine, Yale University School of Medicine, PO Box 208015, L130 Sterling Hall of Medicine, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, CT 06520-8015, USA; john.warner{at}


Most American historians of medicine today would be very hesitant about any claim that medical history humanises doctors, medical students or the larger health care enterprise. Yet, the idea that history can and ought to serve modern medicine as a humanising force has been a persistent refrain in American medicine. This essay explores the emergence of this idea from the end of the 19th century, precisely the moment when modern biomedicine became ascendant. At the same institutions where the new version of scientific medicine was most energetically embraced, some professional leaders warned that the allegiance to science driving the profession's technical and cultural success was endangering humanistic values fundamental to professionalism and the art of medicine. They saw in history a means for rehumanising modern medicine and countering the risk of cultural crisis. While some iteration of this vision of history was remarkably durable, the meanings attached to ‘humanism’ were both multiple and changing, and the role envisioned for history in a humanistic intervention was transformed. Starting in the 1960s as part of a larger cultural critique of the putative ‘dehumanisation’ of the medical establishment, some advocates promoted medical history as a tool to help fashion a new kind of humanist physician and to confront social inequities in the health care system. What has persisted across time is the way that the idea of history as a humanising force has almost always functioned as a discourse of deficiency—a response to perceived shortcomings of biomedicine, medical institutions and medical professionalism.

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  • An earlier, shorter version of this paper, presented at the Beijing Forum, 6 November 2010, will appear in Chinese in The Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Science).

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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