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Unit information: The Philosophy and History of Medicine in 2020/21

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Unit name The Philosophy and History of Medicine
Unit code PHIL30082
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Carel
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Philosophy
Faculty Faculty of Arts


The aim of this unit is to introduce some key elements of the philosophy of medicine in their historical context. If you get ill, you are very lucky you live now rather than 200 years ago, when simple infections would often prove fatal, surgery was carried out without pain relief, and almost all illnesses were treated with blood-letting and medicines based on the poisons mercury and antimony. It might appear that current medicine magnificently demonstrates the triumph of applied science. But the truth of this claim is in fact far from obvious. This unit examines some of the philosophical questions arising from the history of the making of modern medicine, from the new hospitals of the French Revolution, through the so-called laboratory revolution of the late-nineteenth century and the golden era of twentieth century medicine to the AIDS pandemic and the growth of the alternative medicine movement.

Questions addressed include:

  • What is disease? And what is health?
  • Are these biological concepts? Or do they have a subjective or a social component?
  • How did the introduction of mass hospitals in the late eighteenth century transform the relationship between doctor and patient, and with what result on the doctor’s means of diagnosis on the one hand and opportunities for expanding medical knowledge on the other? (We look here at Michel Foucault’s notion of “the clinical gaze”).
  • Did medical science lead directly to improvements in medical care? Or were the two unrelated until the late nineteenth century before which time doctors did more harm than good?
  • Was there a laboratory revolution in nineteenth century medicine?
  • What difference did the microbiological discoveries of Pasteur, Koch, and others really make to medicine?
  • How can generic medical knowledge produced by randomised controlled trials be applied to the diagnosis and treatment of individuals?
  • Does “evidence-based medicine” enable scientific advances to extend to the GP’s surgery? Or does it allow a flawed methodology to trump the skill and experience of doctors in understanding individual patients?
  • Do complementary and alternative medical practices encapsulate different modes of medical knowledge from scientific medicine? Or are they at best expensive placebos and at worst dangerous and discredited quack remedies?
  • We are often told that studies show that environmental factor X causes disease Y, and then are told that this is contradicted by other studies. How do we determine causation in epidemiology?

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will be able to demonstrate:

  1. a deep understanding of central conceptual and philosophical issues within medicine, and their historical development;
  2. clear familiarity with relevant texts in the philosophy of medicine;
  3. the sophisticated skills in philosophical writing and argumentation appropriate to level H/6.

Teaching details

Lectures, small group work, individual exercises, seminars and virtual learning environment.

Assessment Details

Summative: 4,500 word essay - 100% (ILOs 1-3)

Reading and References

The following books are strongly recommended background reading to the history of medicine and the historiography of medicine: ASS= Arts and Social Science Library. MED= Medical Library (down University Walk)

Porter, R. (1999) The Greatest Benefit to Mankind (Fontana) (ISBN: 0006374549). ASS (R131 POR), MED. Burnham, J. C. (2005) What is Medical History? (Cambridge: Polity) (978-0745632254).

Also recommended (and a very good read) but controversial is:

David Wootton (2007) Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

The best book on philosophy of medicine is:

Jeremy Howick (2011) The Philosophy of Evidence-Based Medicine (Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell)

An interesting, if contentious, introduction to some topics in medical epistemology is:

Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch (2005) Dr. Golem: How to Think about Medicine (London: University of Chicago Press). A useful introduction to key themes in the epistemology of medicine. (ISBN: 0226113663) ASS (RC81 COL ) MED (AA8a COL).