restricted access Comment: On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History
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On the Borderland of Medical and Disability History

In my 2008 keynote address for the Social History of Medicine Conference I raised the question of whether disability history and history of medicine are “rival siblings or conjoined twins.”1 Beth Linker offers a generous, thought-provoking response that ends with a plea: “We should work to make these connections rather than throwing up dividers between medical and disability history. At the very least, historians who wish to wear both hats—as medical historian and disability historian—should be able to do so without a crisis in identity” (p. 535). Sharing Linker’s place as one of the few scholars who works at this rich borderland, I applaud much of what she says, especially the notion that engaging in productive dialogue is critical for both subfields. Given disability’s ever-shifting definition and its wide sweep—current estimates claim that at least one in six Americans belongs to this one minority anyone can join at any time2—the understudied topic warrants serious, creative attention in every arena.

Still, I want to question whether it is possible or even desirable for scholars to wear both hats. In fact, I believe the crisis in identity that Linker hopes to avoid is exactly what we must embrace as a force for advancing new kinds of historical thinking. Before rushing to tear down these divides between history of medicine and disability history, it behooves us to understand the substance of these divides and what they bring to future scholarship.

Thanks to Linker’s cogent presentation, it is easy to appreciate why there might be tensions, misunderstandings, and a certain defensiveness [End Page 540] on both sides. I find her discussions of the histories of the two subfields especially instructive; history of medicine’s European émigré-founders cast their lot with the exciting new medicine taking off in U.S. universities during the 1940s and 1950s, while in the American context disability history was rooted within disability studies, a field that emerged in the 1980s to challenge the dominance of a purely medical view of disability. Medical history’s founders (two of whom were physicians themselves) believed history of medicine to be on a par with anatomy, physiology, and bacteriology, a specialized science best practiced by and for physicians; disability history’s founders (none of whom were physicians themselves) believed the history of disability to be on a par with histories of race, gender, and social class, ones best used to advance the lives of disabled people and the cause of disability rights more broadly. While each new intellectual cohort, most recently social historians of medicine, has challenged, then moved a little further from what might be called a medicine-centered celebration of medicine, most medical history retains enough of these core values to hold onto older ideas about disability. These distinctive backgrounds make it difficult, perhaps even impossible to fit a hat, let alone a head, that could comfortably do justice to both approaches.

The crux of the difference lies in politics, how explicitly political one thinks this study of history should be. I don’t mean the superficial kinds attached to career ambitions or even those that divide left from right, liberal from conservative, though they of course play a part. Rather, I’m thinking of the choices we scholars make to produce work that might provoke discomfort because it openly confronts the problem of disability within the context of institutional discrimination, social prejudice, inhospitable environments, and other misconceptions past and present in analyses that invariably implicate us. To understand the incompatibility between Linker’s subfield and my own, we must understand certain political realities behind opposing intellectual pasts, one that grew increasingly wary of politics, the other growing increasingly bold about expressing them. As we learn from Linker’s account, history of medicine’s founders came to the United States fleeing the encroachment of Nazism in interwar Europe, and the one victim of vicious red-baiting, Henry Sigerist, returned to his native Switzerland after publishing work that revealed his commitment to social justice in health care. His 1937 book, Socialized Medicine in the Soviet Union, drew special vitriol...