restricted access Comment: On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History

Beth Linker’s essay offers a timely introduction to the borderlands of medical and disability history—a rich and wondrous place—written for historians of medicine by a well-respected scholar whose work straddles both fields. Linker claims “the two fields tend to parallel one another with few points of contact, despite the multiple ways in which the actual histories of disease and disability overlap” (p. 502). She attributes this parallel play on the one hand to an analytic antagonism toward medicine by disability history and on the other to a disease-centered focus in medical history that obscures questions of disability.

These are big, wide-ranging fields, and no doubt space limitations forced Linker to steer a tight path in her essay, restricting her review to twentieth-century U.S. medicine, and mainly avoiding the history of psychiatry, hospitals, reproduction, and health policy (except as they can be fitted into a disease framework). She traces a fascinating genealogy of disease-centered historiography emerging out of the Hopkins program, beginning with Temkin and Ackerknecht. Unfortunately, this means she must drop Sigerist, and thereby his legacy within the field remains untraced in her narrative, despite its presence in our field in the work of many scholars on class, race, and gender. Given these limitations, I’d like to pick up where Linker leaves off, to probe the places of productive intersection between both fields that she does not map and to argue further for the analytic value of those existing and future intersections. My alternative mapping reveals overlapping communities of thought rather than parallel tracks. Perhaps it is not surprising to see this shared constituency, once we expand our reading of historiography beyond the twentieth-century American disease-centered model that Linker ably reviews.

Many disability history scholars began their careers as historians of medicine. Beyond the important work of Linker herself, Heather Monroe Prescott, or Martin Pernick, all of whom Linker mentions in passing, the list is quite long. Catherine Kudlick first wrote a cultural history of cholera in postrevolutionary France before taking up the mantle of disability [End Page 560] history; disability historian Sandra Sufian’s first book was a history of malaria in mandate-era Palestine; Katherine Ott wrote about tuberculosis in the United States before taking up a disability history of prosthetics; Nadja Durbach worked on the history of British antivaccinationism before starting research on freak shows and bodily deformity; Leslie Reagan first researched abortion and medicine in the United States before turning to consider how German measles and the specter of disability fit together in a larger politics that links reproductive rights and disability rights.1 I could go on. But what are we to make of this migration and its general direction?

The antagonism that Linker describes among disability studies toward medicine and the medical model is real and is self-conscious. This is because medicine has long been empowered to adjudicate claims through which rights, opportunities, moral judgments, and resources relevant to disabled persons are parsed, and because medical practitioners and ideas regularly pathologized the normative bodily and mental states of disabled persons, something many historians of disability have experienced personally. This pathologization, coupled with the institutional power granted to medicine, has also left disabled persons vulnerable to abuse, experimentation, and disregard at the hands of medical experts. The social effects of pathologization in turn, spill far beyond the clinic or hospital to shape the crux of the experience of disability. A medical history of obesity, let us say, would be greatly impoverished without this lens. These dystopic social and political effects of medical pathologization are no different, than what we have seen in relationship to gender, to sexuality, to race, all subjects that historians of medicine have embraced to great effect. But questioning the rationale and power of medicine, its ideas, language, and practices, the ways it shapes the opportunities and constraints on human beings, does not preclude one from pursuing its history, indeed, it might even motivate the desire to know.

Perhaps women’s and gender history provides a good parallel for my understanding of the history of disability as...