The Bleeding Founders

New-York Historical Society/Bridgeman Images
‘George Washington in His Last Illness, Attended by Doctors Craik and Brown’; colored engraving, 1799

The history of medicine, like the history of science, is a highly bifurcated and contentious field. Some historians of medicine, Lewis Thomas and David Wootton, for example, believe that the past is decidedly inferior to the present and that nothing much good happened in medicine until the mid-nineteenth century and the discovery of germ theory. The reason that physicians do not want to read about the history of medicine, said Thomas, “is that it is so unbelievably deplorable,” with all that bleeding, purging, and misunderstandings based on theories of the human body inherited from antiquity.

David Wootton, in his book Bad Medicine (2006), goes further. He thinks doctors in the past ought to have known better. The knowledge of many diseases and their remedies was staring them in the face, and they ought to have seized upon this knowledge and saved countless lives. Instead, they were caught up in their hidebound theories and ignored the empirical evidence that was all around them; and thus for centuries they killed more people than they cured.

For the past generation other historians, such as Roy Porter and Charles E. Rosenberg, have tried to counter this kind of present-minded history by writing social histories of medicine that respect the integrity of the past. They have set forth more charitable interpretations of past medical practices than Thomas and Wootton, and have attempted to understand those past medical practices in their own terms. In other words, they have sought to treat the history of medicine as sensitive historians now treat the history of other fields of human endeavor such as politics and religion. Good historians do not go back and condemn, say, John Winthrop of seventeenth-century Massachusetts for not being more like us today, for not believing in democracy and religious liberty. Instead, they seek to understand Winthrop and his fellow Puritans in their own terms, as they understood themselves. They don’t assume that the past is inferior to the present.

So why can’t historians of medicine do the same thing? Why does the history of medicine, like the history of science in general, have to tell a triumphal story of the march of reason and knowledge out of darkness into our enlightened present? That is the question that has set the history of science and medicine apart from the other fields of history.

The problem is that most historians are relativists. They don’t privilege the present over the past, and they don’t believe in absolute values and truths. By contrast, many historians of medicine and science are universalists. Scientific and medical truths, they contend, are not relative to time and place; they are always and universally true. If the germ theory is true, then it was just as true for eighteenth-century America as it is…

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