Program in the History of Science and Medicine

In the 16 years since its inception, the Program in the History of Science and Medicine (widely referred to on campus as HSHM) has become a vital presence among Yale’s cross-disciplinary initiatives. In the past eight years alone, the number of majors in the program has climbed by roughly 80 percent, from just over 50 to nearly 100. It is now the third-largest major in the humanities. Including non-majors, total enrollment in HSHM courses numbered 1,103 in the 2016-17 academic year.

The undergraduate major in the history of science, medicine, and public health enrolls students with a wide variety of interests and intended career paths—future doctors, historians, policy makers, and beyond. They elect one of five “pathways” to the major: medicine and public health; global health; science, technology, and society; gender, reproduction, and the body; and media, knowledge, and visual culture. As many as one-fifth of majors choose to pursue a self-designed pathway; current examples include “cognition in history,” “race, medicine, and public health,” and “historical and comparative approaches to bioethics.” Meanwhile, the graduate program—a semi-autonomous track within the Department of History—currently has 22 Ph.D. students studying topics ranging from poisons and antidotes in premodern Italy to conservation and identity in 20th-century Hawaii to the role of psychiatric ideas in both enforcing and resisting military dictatorship in Latin America. Recent graduates of the Ph.D. program are now faculty members at universities including the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Students in John Warner’s class, “Media and Medicine in Modern America.” Photograph courtesy of the Program in the History of Science and Medicine.

Roughly half of HSHM majors plan to go to medical school. According to the program’s chair, Deborah Coen, the study of history shows premedical students how medicine changes as a society’s social structures, values, and scientific norms change. “A historical perspective can show students how medical knowledge gets made and will often suggest new strategies for dealing with issues that confound medical ethics. We’re trying to prepare students to grapple with the ambiguities and uncertainties they will encounter as health care professionals—or as patients.”

HSHM’s seven ladder faculty members and four lecturers offer courses that attest to the breadth of the discipline, from Joanna Radin’s “Historical Perspectives on Global Health,” which uses history to think through present-day problems around biosecurity and humanitarianism, to Paola Bertucci’s “Collecting Nature and Art,” in which students organize an exhibit at the Medical Historical Library, to Bill Rankin’s “Cartography, Territory, and Identity,” in which students learn to analyze maps’ implicit arguments and then redesign those maps to make new arguments. Carolyn Roberts—a postdoctoral associate in African-American studies and history who will join the faculty as assistant professor this summer—will begin teaching in HSHM this spring with a course entitled “Medicine, Race, and the Slave Trade.”

The program convenes monthly Science Studies Lunches, where students can observe science and medicine in action at labs, hospitals, and museums, and engage in topical discussions. A series of colloquia, featuring visiting scholars from around the world, resumed on January 29 with a lecture by Marcos Cueto, of the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro, entitled “Lost in Translation: Brazil, AIDS and Global Health, c. 1996.”

According to Coen, the history of science and medicine isn’t just about science per se, and it isn’t just for science students. “It’s about the production of knowledge in the broadest sense, and you can take our intellectual tools and use them to understand everything from evidence-based medicine to the ‘science’ of online dating.” Ultimately, HSHM wants its students to become deeper-thinking, better-informed global citizens. “Having an understanding of how science works—at the level of laboratory practice and at the macro level of social institutions and how research agendas are set—that’s really important. We need citizens who don’t think of science as just a black box, citizens who are ready to peer inside.”