The history of public health is the history of mankind as a group constantly understanding health and disease. The social history of medicine arouses the ideological resonance of respecting life and caring for patients, encouraging people to overcome obstacles on the road of exploring the secrets of life and disease. The continuous global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the role of medical and health issues in the historical process. Nowadays, the social history of medicine has captured extensive attention from academia, growing into an important academic field.
History of disciplinary development
The social history of medicine is an interdisciplinary field that arises with scientific and medical progress. The definition and connotation of medical history have changed with continuous medical advancement. Its research fields have become increasingly extensive, covering not only the history of various medical disciplines, but also the impact and shaping of human health care activities on society.
“The term ‘social history of medicine’ actually appeared relatively late, while early research is generally referred to as medical history,” said Yu Xinzhong, dean of the Faculty of History at Nankai University. In the West, medical history came into academic sight around the 17th century. In China, modern medical history began in the early 20th century, with early research primarily conducted by scholars in the medical field. Since the second half of the 20th century, a growing number of humanities and social science researchers such as historians and sociologists have entered this field. Since the end of the 20th century, as domestic historians, influenced by practical needs and Western academia, have increasingly enriched research on health, disease, and medical issues, the social history of medicine has turned into an emerging academic field.
“The Chinese social history of medicine constitutes a part of time-honored Chinese culture and history. Works of medical history written in various dynasties recorded epidemics and medical documents at the time,” said Yu Gengzhe, a professor from the School of History and Civilization at Shaanxi Normal University. Ancient people attached great importance to the interactive relationship between medicine and society, which can be seen from such representative works as the preface of A-B Classic of Acupuncture and Moxibustion by Huangfu Mi (215–282), Medical Theory by Zhang Gao (1149–1227) in the Song Dynasty (960–1279), and Medical History by Li Lian (1488–1566) in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).
Yu Gengzhe went on to note that modern academic writing of the social history of medicine is first represented by History of Chinese Medicine by Chen Bangxian (1889–1976), the first general medical history work that involves various fields of medicine and health in the form of a systematic chronicle of Chinese medicine. Following this, there are History of Chinese Medicine co-authored by K. Chimin Wong (1889–1972) and Wu Lien-teh (1879–1960), On the Origins and Development of Medicine in China by Xie Guan (1880–1950), multiple early works of Chen Yuan (1880–1971) that were later compiled as Early Works of Chen Yuan, and The Outline of Medical History by Lee T’ao (1901–59).
In the 1940s, China’s medical history research ushered in a period of prosperity, during which the social history of medicine moved towards specialization and institutionalization. According to the Center for History of Medicine at Peking University director Zhang Daqing, the Chinese Society of Medical History at the Chinese Medical Association was founded in 1935, the Health Science Center at Peking University established a medical history chair in 1946, and the Chinese Journal of Medical History was first issued in 1947. In July 2021, the establishment of the Professional Committee for the Social History of Medicine at the Chinese Society of Social History marked the further growth of China’s medical history research team in the new era.
“A pandemic in any era will cause great pain to human society,” said Zhang Yongan, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Shanghai University. For this reason, the history of epidemics and their prevention and control is a prominent research topic. As scholars work to return to the historical scene and restore the historical truth, they need to have strong realistic concerns.
The humanistic orientation of medical history research requires understanding the phenomenon of disease while considering social and cultural factors, such as culture, ethnicity, religious traditions, and family life. At present, realistic propositions including the medical system, doctor-patient relationships, and disease concepts, have come to receive attention, forming new trends in the social history of medicine. Gao Xi, a professor from the Department of History at Fudan University, noted that these new trends have been exhibited by examining historical relationships between social customs and cultural environments and diseases, investigating diseases’ cultural metaphors and sociological definitions, and exploring the ways in which modern genetics and new-type drugs reshape people’s self-awareness.
“With the rapid development of digital technology, piles of historical documents and archives have been digitized and thus greatly enriched the information sources for medical history researchers,” said Zhang Daqing. Submerged in a massive body of literature, researchers are tasked with introducing new concepts and new research methods. The digital turn in medical research will further expand the research horizons of medical history.
In Gao’s view, to promote the disciplinary construction of the social history of medicine, the perspective of global history is essential to breaking the traditional narrative mode that splits into “Chinese medical history” and “world medical history,” granting the same position for Chinese medicine in discussions as Western medicine. Efforts are needed to seek the similarities and interactions of different medical knowledge systems, deepen understanding of the most essential nature of life, and discover the consistency and commonality of medical thought and ethical values between the East and the West, bringing forth medical cultural exchanges between different civilizations.