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Seminar to explore humanities through history of medicine

December 17, 2008

Health, and how human beings treat and react to diseases and disabilities, can influence a historian’s analysis of the death of a monarch or a literary critic’s examination of a poetic passage about a sickness thought to be leprosy. Exploring the humanities through the lens of medicine will be the focus of a summer seminar designed by scholars from Arizona State University and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“The seminar seeks to juxtapose two major areas of scholarly analysis – humanistic and scientific – in the setting of core discussions of the history of disease, medicine and disability,” says Monica Green, a professor of history in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She and Walton O. Schalick, a practicing physician and assistant professor of history of medicine and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, are co-directors of the five-week seminar that is funded through a $146,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and administered by the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (ACMRS) at Arizona State University.

Set at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College, London, and the Wellcome Library, known as the world’s premier research center for medical history, the seminar will gather scholars from across the disciplines interested in fundamental humanistic questions of health, disease and disability in medieval Europe.

“A primary goal will be to explore how the new scientific technologies of identifying pathogens, particularly leprosy and plague, can inform traditional, humanistic methods – historical, literary, art historical and linguistic – of understanding cultural responses to disease and disability,” Green says.

The Wellcome Trust Centre is the best possible location for a seminar on this topic, according to Green.

“In addition to its vast medical history resources, including documents and research from other countries from almost all periods of medical history, it will allow the seminar participants to be in contact with an international hub of like-minded researchers,” she says.

Another goal of the seminar is to demonstrate how understanding traditional, humanistic studies of medieval medicine can inform modern scientific studies of diseases, says Green, whose primary field of study is medical history, with particular interest in the history of women’s medicine, medieval European medical history, and race and medicine.

Green has published four books on the subject, including “Women’s Healthcare in the Medieval West,” for which she won the John Nicholas Brown Prize for the best first book or monograph on a medieval subject. She has also been awarded numerous fellowships and grants, including a Countway Library Fellowship in the History of Medicine at Harvard University and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship.

Seminar co-director Schalick specializes in disability studies, medieval medicine and medical ethics.

The seminar is designed for post-doctoral scholars and faculty members who are not already well versed on medical history techniques. Its focus will be on providing tools necessary to apply medical history research to their own work, says Green. “Given the extraordinary developments in the humanistic and the scientific disciplines, the seminar is structured for interdisciplinary collaboration,” Green says, adding, “The richest work is most often interdisciplinary.”

In addition to having access to the community of scholars who regularly gather at the Wellcome Centre, the 15 participants selected to attend the seminar will tap into resources at the Wellcome Library, self-described as “One of the world’s greatest collections of books, manuscripts, archives, films and paintings on the history of medicine from the earliest times to the present day.”

The curriculum will focus specifically on medieval European medical history research techniques. Three guest lecturers, all senior scholars, will bring expertise in the particular areas of Islamic medicine, medieval paleopathology, and the history of surgery.

“The subject of medieval medical history is being revolutionized by the inclusion of many different traditions, including scientific analysis and techniques,” says Green.

The field of paleopathology – the scientific study of ancient diseases and maladies – has great potential to influence the field of medical history, she notes.

To illustrate, Green draws a parallel with a modern doctor diagnosing a living person today. The doctor will often run a number of tests, measure blood pressure and temperature, examine the body for sores, and listen to a patient’s heartbeat. Studying the body in person is essential for this diagnosis. Investigating a person’s skeletal remains and DNA, if available, can produce more accurate diagnoses, she says.

The connection of medical history to other disciplines is resulting in an increasing demand for access to critical documents and research done in the field. While the seminar participants will have access to resources through the Wellcome Trust Centre, other researchers looking to investigate medical history can face difficulties because of language barriers and the inability to find documentation, says Green.

In response to this issue, Green plans to develop a publicly accessible “Resources for Medieval Medicine” Web site to support the seminar’s work. This will be maintained, for a period of five years, by ACMRS.

“This seminar will hopefully help more than just the people who attend,” Green says. “The creation of the Web site with access to a core database of medical history sources will help countless more.”

More information about the summer seminar – “Disease in the Middle Ages” – is online at

Ashley Lange,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences