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HSY2920 - Death and Disease: Healers and Quacks in History

6 points, SCA Band 1, 0.125 EFTSL

Undergraduate Faculty of Arts

Leader: Michael Hau


Not offered in 2007


The class will explore important issues in the social history of medicine from the 18th to the 20th century. Focusing on developments in Europe and America, the unit will discuss trans-national themes in Western medicine. Topics covered include the rise and changing functions of hospitals, the historical development of the ,modern' patient - physician relationship, the emergence of a hierarchy of medical practitioners (e.g. doctors, nurses, and quacks) and the transformation of medical practice through modern technologies. Through interlocking narratives, it will provoke students to reflect on the social construction of medical knowledge about health, disease, degeneracy, race, and gender.


  1. Students should have a general idea of the ways in which modern institutions (e. g. hospitals, laboratories, and health insurers) shaped the development of modern medicine in the West.

  1. They should understand how modern medical technology transformed the relationship between patients and healers. Did this transformation benefit the patients, the doctors, or both?

  1. They should further be able to critically discuss ethical implications of new medical technologies. Did medical knowledge about reproduction and reproductive technologies work for the benefit of women as some historians would claim? Or was this type of knowledge another way of subjecting women to the power of their husbands, their physicians, or to the state as other historians would argue?

  1. Discussion sections are designed to familiarize students with primary source materials. Students may be confronted with authors whose fundamental assumptions are very different from their own. They should learn how to identify some of the basic assumptions behind the claims of a given primary source by addressing a number of critical questions. What do I have to believe in order to accept the statement of its author as true? What are the epistemological assumptions of its author? What does the source tell us about the worldview of the author? What are his or her assumptions concerning the nature of nature, the nature of humans, or the nature of men and women? How are these assumptions related to the medical knowledge of the period?

  1. Students should learn to critically evaluate historical arguments. What type of evidence does a historian provide in support of his or her argument? Statistics, case studies, analogies, or metaphors? Students should be able to explain why they find a historical argument persuasive or why they disagree with claims made by a given historian.

  1. Finally, students should become familiar with some of the basic narratives of medical historiography. Is the history of medicine primarily the history of outstanding physicians and their contributions to medical science? How does the view of medical history as social history change our understanding of medical knowledge? Is the history of medicine and medical knowledge a history of continuous progress? Or is the history of medicine part of a modern reconfiguration of power relations between social classes, men and women, and/or scientific experts and lay people?

  1. Students should be able to develop a position for their own research projects by critically engaging some the narratives of medical historiography.


Short essay (1000 words): 20%;
Critical essay (2500 words): 50%;
One hour exam (1000 words): 20%;
Tutorial participation 10%

Contact hours

2 - 3 hours of lectures and tutorials per week


A First Year level sequence in History, or permission of the Head of School