History of Premodern Medicine

Fall 2015 • HIST 300-017
info | readings

Fred Gibbs (fwgibbs@unm.edu)
Mesa Vista Hall, 1077
Office Hours: M 2:30-4; W 9:30-11; almost anytime by appointment

Course Description

This course chronologically explores the wide range of theories and practices employed by pre-modern physicians and healers. It emphasizes their various approaches to understanding and treating disease and the gradual development of the medical profession. Although medieval and early modern medicine can seem utterly irrelevant to today’s world, this course illustrates how a historical awareness of medicine gives us important perspectives on contemporary medical practices. Even more broadly, the course provide synthetic and interpretive frameworks for understanding the evolution of western medicine over time, such as how shifting social and cultural values have motivated (and continue to motivate) change in medicine. The emphasis shall always remain on showing how and why medical theory and practice looked like it did rather than simply regurgitating what happened over time.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Understand the overall chronological and thematic trajectory of premodern medicine, approaching it from multiple points of view (theory, practice, disease, doctors, patients, etc.).

  • Discuss and write critically about how medicine and medical values are influenced by shifting cultural, social, religious, and political attitudes.

  • Explicate the assumptions and values of modern medical thinking and its discourse using the historical perspectives and analytical frameworks provided by the course.

  • Critically evaluate the history of premodern medicine as visible online, and gain experience writing rigorously researched historical essays for a broad, general audience.

General Expectations

  • By enrolling in the course, you make a committment to be in class for every scheduled meeting (a few misses during the term is fine). However, simply showing up to class counts for very little; I expect that you’ll actively participate in all discussions, presentations, and activities. If you want a course where you can passively attend lectures and occasionally regurgitate information, this course is not for you. If you are shy about speaking in class, you will become much more comfortable and fluent by the end of the semester.

  • I consider it extremely rude and disruptive to arrive to class late, and it greatly aggravates me. Flat tires, missed busses, failed alarms, or other appointments are not excuses, they are simply failures. There are no excuses, only priorities. Accidents happen, and I undertstand you might be (barely) late once or twice. Repeatedly being late will negatively impact your grade by a half to full letter grade.

  • You cannot make up missed classes and I will not summarize them for you via email. Please DO NOT email me asking what you missed or how to make it up (feel free to ask your class colleagues, especially group members, for updates). Medical emergencies beyond your control are the one exception to the attendance policy, and you should let me know about these ASAP.

  • If you run into personal problems during the semester that make school difficult for you, please talk to me about what adjustments we can make to help you succeed in the course.

Work Requirements and Grading

  • This course does not have typical exams or essays or assignments that will be graded regularly. Your grade will reflect my subjective assessment of your effort to the collaborative course project. Based on what you can and cannot do in our class meetings, t’s perfectly obvious to me what kind of effort you’re putting into the course. However, the onus is on your to show me that you’re engaged.

  • Participation component is based on preparedness for and engagement with the class discussion. You do not have to talk all the time to do well. You need to ask good questions, give good answers to questions, and generally be active. Aim for quality over quantity. If you talk a lot, you’re probably just diluting your good ideas. If you don’t talk at all, you will seriously compromise your grade.

Required Texts

There are no required texts for the course (see below). However, we will be using a free bibliography tool called Zotero to help us manage our readings. You will need to subscribe to the course Zotero library. Please see the easy and quickly completed step-by-step directions on how to do this.

Why There Are No Required Texts

Modern medicine can often seem inevitable: it’s the best technology, the best research, the best doctors, etc. So of course it’s the way it should be, right? But in fact it’s a product of a long series of choices that reflect particular medical, cultural, and political values. The history of premodern medicine is a fascinating window into how various groups of people have fulfilled their desire to retain and restore health (just as we do), yet following very different values and mechanisms. The critical distance between them and us (and the value of history in general), allows us to take a broad view of their values and choices so we can better understand our own.

Despite the utility of medical history to critical awareness of the medical establishment, virtually all easily available information sources about premodern medicine do little more than cast judgment about the barbarity of premodern medicine (as if our own medicine won’t eventually be considered as such). Or they reduce its fascinating complexity into a mind-numbing narrative overburdened by excessive detail of famous physicians implementing new medical ideas. This approach alienates medical history from contemporary society, making it seem totally irrelevant despite its immense utility (and in my view, necessity). We can help fix this.

This course is not the typical history course that employs passive lectures to convey information; nor is it the kind where you read some assignments, discuss them, and write about them to get a grade. We will do some of that in preparation for for more interesting work.

This course will be run as a history lab, where our collaborative endeavor will be to edit existing and create new Wikipedia pages that people will use to learn about the history of premodern medicine. There are no assigned texts because we have not yet determined what we’ll research or write about (I have some suggestions, of course, so we won’t waste time groping for ideas). Once we have collectively formulated a workplan for the semester, you’ll be using Zimmerman library to acquire necessary academic resources for research.


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