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MEDICAL SCIENTISTS AND THE VIEW THAT HISTORY IS BUNK* BERNARD TOWERS, M.A., M.B., Ch.B.\ I am grateful for the opportunity to address the Los Angeles Society for the History of Medical Science. Particularly am I grateful to you, Mr. President, for agreeing so readily to my somewhat provocative title. I speak, ofcourse, not as a professional historian, but as a practicing medical scientist. I am proud to belong to this relatively new scientific group, one which is growing apace in the bosom of—I must not say the oldest profession —but at any rate one ofthe oldest. However, despite my enthusiasm for my chosen field, I shall be saying hard things about some aspects of current medical science. Publicly to criticize any part of the medical profession, which must constitute one ofthe most powerful trade unions in the world, is a politically dangerous game. I can think ofsome medical audiences where I should have to choose my words with infinite care and tact, and not merely to avoid the social solecism ofgiving offense to hosts. Here, however, I feel curiously secure, and relieved that I can speak my mind freely and without constraint in defense ofthe scholarly pursuit of medical history. After all, where else in the academic world would one find two professors of the history ofmedicine who also happen to hold office, respectively, as chancellor and dean of graduate studies? I like to think ofthis happy circumstance as a symptom rather than a cause ofthe respect for medical history that I have found at UCLA. So if my talk is bound to offend some—and that is the inevitable price one pays for selecting provocative subjects—it may be there will be others in the audience who will give it a sympathetic hearing. To those who are about to * Presented at the Society for the History ofMedical Science, Los Angeles, California, April 19, 196a. t Fellow and director of medical studies,Jesus College, Cambridge, England. Visiting associate professor ofanatomy, University ofCalifornia, Los Angeles, 1965-66. 44 Bernard Towers · History Is Bunk Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Autumn 1966 be offended I can only offer condolencts in advance and express the hope that my remarks, however annoying, won't seem altogether too outrageous . I would particularly ask you to remember that my experience and conclusions are the product of my membership of four universities in Britain. Any resemblance to local personnel or practice is entirely coincidental . The view that "history is bunk" was first enunciated, in so many words, by a very successful citizen ofthis country, Henry Ford I. Ifhe was the first with sufficient courage to say it openly, he was surely not the first, nor the last, to feel it. This has been the view ofthe practical man down the ages. For a motorcar manufacturer, or a plumber, say, it is a very understandable position. What good is the past to anyone for whom only the present and the future can present a challenge? Indeed this attitude is to be commended in a technological consultant, that is, if one is simply concerned with trouble-free combustion engines or with water closets that will work as one wants them to work. It is my contention that the present period offlowering ofmedical science will see re-enacted, though in different form, that struggle ofover three hundred years ago, between the physicians and the barber-surgeons. The medical profession has now acquired—but only very recently—the right and the freedom to choose between a future as skilled barbers, plumbers, general repair men, and/or a future as men oflearning and understanding, fit to take their places in a community of scholars. The two prospects open to us are not by any means necessarily incompatible. Moreover, I want to insist at the outset that I have the highest regard for plumbers and barbers, especially skilled ones. But I happen also to think that the medical profession properly belongs in the universities. It has something to contribute to, and something to gain from, the academic milieu that would be lost if medicine were pursued, as once it was, and as plumbing still is pursued, in trade schools or...


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