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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 April 14; 334(7597): 762.
PMCID: PMC1852005
History of Medicine

Understanding the history of medicine

David Wootton, professor of history

Ravichandran says that Andrew Cunningham, in his BBC Radio series The Making of Modern Medicine, tries to make sense of the past in its own terms.1 If we try to understand the past in its own terms we will never make sense of it.

For example,2 in 1868 (the year after Lister published on antiseptic surgery) John Hughes Bennett, a professor of medicine at Edinburgh, published an article showing that the whole approach of Pasteur and Lister was misconceived: he reported experiments that “proved” that germs generate spontaneously, so one could never create a germ free environment. In his own understanding, Hughes Bennett (who discovered leukaemia) had disproved the germ theory of disease. In our understanding, Hughes Bennett had failed adequately to sterilise his experimental apparatus. If we want to know what really happened we need to use our own science. Proponents of the “make sense of the past in its own terms” school advocate “charitable interpretation,” but there are limits to charity in a case like this: no amount of charitable interpretation will make Hughes Bennett right and Pasteur and Lister wrong.

Historians of medicine thus have a simple choice: on the one hand, you can understand the past in its own terms (in which case Hippocrates and Galen saved lives), or, on the other, you can understand the past in the light of modern science (in which case they killed much more often than they cured).


Competing interests: None declared.


1. Ravichandran B. Celebrating the medical past, again. BMJ 2007;334:587 (17 March.)
2. McClure I. David Wootton. Bad medicine: doctors doing harm since Hippocrates. BMJ 2006;333:606

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