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  • Teaching Medical History with Primary Sources:Introduction
  • Dominique A. Tobbell

Over the last seven years of teaching at the University of Minnesota, I have developed two undergraduate courses that place heavy emphasis on primary sources. The first course, Technology and Medicine in Modern America, examines how technology came to occupy medicine’s center stage and what impact this change has had on health care practice, health care institutions, patients, consumers, and [End Page 124] health care policy since the turn of the twentieth century.1 The second course, Women, Health, and History, provides students with a historical perspective on the roles that women have played as healers, patients, research subjects, and health activists in U.S. society since the colonial period. The overwhelming majority of students who take both courses are pre-health science majors or otherwise biological or biomedical science majors. The Women, Health, and History course also attracts humanities majors.2

The strength of this teaching depends on a collaboration with Lois Hendrickson, curator of the University of Minnesota’s Wangensteen Historical Library of Medicine and Biology. The Wangensteen Historical Library is an eighty-thousand volume collection of rare books, journals, and manuscripts in diverse medical and biological subject areas that span half a millennium, from 1430 to 1930. The Wangensteen Historical Library has over one thousand artifacts, primarily from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Given largely by Minnesota physicians and medical organizations, these items range from sixteenth-century–Italian pharmaceutical jars to Civil War-era amputation kits, to X-ray tubes and eyeglasses.3 Hendrickson selects manuscript sources and artifacts from the Wangensteen’s collection, brings them into the classroom, and develops exercises that enable the students to work with, analyze, and interpret the primary sources. Once during the semester, students—during their weekly discussion sections (which are led by a teaching assistant)—visit the Wangensteen Library where they get to work with various artifacts, texts, and manuscripts selected by Hendrickson.4 In Technology and Medicine in Modern America, students are required to write a ten-page historical research paper on an artifact (medical technology) from the Wangensteen Library collection. By conducting additional primary research in archival documents, medical journals, newspapers, and magazines, and interpreting these primary documents and situating them in the context of the course readings and [End Page 125] lectures, students make an argument about the influence the introduction of their medical technology had on medical practice. This might include an assessment of how the technology shaped medical understanding of disease, the patient’s experience of disease, or the nature of nursing or physician practice. Three examples of student projects have been posted on the Recommended Dose blog ( In addition, I incorporate oral history interview transcripts and audio excerpts into the curriculum.

There is, of course, a precedent for the collaborative work that Hendrickson and I do in the classroom and many of you will already incorporate primary sources in your own teaching. In 2005, Kathleen W. Jones and Jonathon Erlen were editors of a special Medicine and History issue of the Organization of American Historians’ monthly OAH Magazine of History.5 The issue provided “American history teachers with rich, novel, innovative ways to engage their students in conversations about the big questions and important subjects that mark the study of the American past” by offering them articles and lesson plans developed by medical historians.6 The focus of the special issue was to show to American historians that the history of health, disease, and health care was of great relevance and utility for the teaching of American history, and key to this was the incorporation of primary sources into the lesson plans. For example, Janet Tighe’s contribution, “Negotiating the Health of the Public: Yellow Fever in 1793 Philadelphia,” was a lesson plan for exploring “the basic structures and underlying world view of a particular people and place in a time of crisis.”7 Part of Tighe’s lesson plan includes students analyzing two types of primary source documents: “a set of private letters from a Quaker woman … ; and a set of minutes from a citizen’s committee by the Philadelphia mayor.”8 There are several other contributions that...


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