10 Great Books on the History of Medicine (#histmed)

I would like to thank Verity Burke who put together this great list of books on the History of Medicine for us. Check out the following titles which I aim to feature over the coming weeks.

By no means meant to be an exhaustive list of ‘what to read’ or even ‘where to start’, my list is populated by the History of Medicine topics that form a personal fascination. Largely nineteenth century and anatomical, these texts have informed and inspired my own research and passion for the subject.

morbid-curiosities1. Morbid Curiosities: Medical Museums in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Samuel J.M.M. Alberti (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Ideally, I’d recommend everything both Samuel J.M.M. Alberti and Fay Bound Alberti have ever written, which ranges from taxidermy to the symbolism of the human heart, but this is a good starting point, tracing the afterlives of bodies in nineteenth-century medical museums. Analysing how the collection and preservation of body parts transformed them into material culture, Alberti’s clear and concise work reveals that it wasn’t just anatomical illustration that reimagined the body as a roadmap of disease.



morbid-anatomy-anthology2. The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, ed. Joanna Ebenstein and Colin Dickey (Morbid Anatomy Press, 2014)

An edited edition of some of the most memorable lectures hosted by Morbid Anatomy, the essays in this book range from Stephen T. Asma on maternity and the monstrous imagination to Simon Chaplin’s brilliant breakdown of the anatomization and public display of dissected bodies. Plus everything in between, including postmortem photography and mouse taxidermy classes.





3. The Sick Rose: Or, Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration by Richard Barnett (Thames and Hudson, 2014)

Barnett’s book showcases representations of disease before the advent of colour photography, insightfully weaving a tale of history through image. Richard Barnett is also the kind of person who will mention (in a public talk) that you tweeted him an illustration from Vesalius’s De humani corpis fabrica (1543) solely to point out that it features a skull ‘down there’ instead of a willy, but not make fun of you for it.




4. Human Anatomy: Depicting the Body from the Renaissance to Today, eds. Benjamin A. Rifkin, Michael J. Akerman and Judith Folkenberg (Thames and Hudson, 2011)

Beautifully illustrated, this text walks the reader through a history of anatomical atlases, as the title suggests, from the renaissance to today. Interspersed with an overview of preoccupations and illustrative techniques from each time period, it’s a great introduction to the canon of anatomical illustrators and the contemporary beliefs and concerns their art reveals.



5. Ann Dally, Women under the Knife (Hutchinson Radiance, 1991)

A book that makes reading about anal fistula surprisingly fun, but still won’t stop strangers trying to talk to you on the bus, Dally uncovers the history of women as the subjects of surgery. While there were major surgical developments in the Victorian era, there was also a tendency to diagnose emotional, social or mental issues as physically located, leading experimental procedures like clitoridectomy and ‘spaying’ to be marketed as cures.

6.     Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007)

The book everyone interested in the history of medicine wishes they’d written. Covering a sweep of history from the eighteenth to twenty-first centuries, Daston and Galison use scientific atlases and image production to chart the change from ‘truth to nature’ (extracting a universal truth through what could be seen by the naked eye) to ‘mechanical objectivity’ (objectivity unimpeded by personal perspective) to ‘trained judgment’ (the expert who is able to comprehend and interpret what he sees, and what the untrained observer or machine cannot), revealing changes in how scientific and medical professionals conceived of knowledge itself.

7.    Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (Fontana Press, 1999)

This mighty tome is written by a stalwart of medical history, and provides a survey of key medical moments across space (Porter examines medicine in both East and West) and time. Not one to read on the bus, but a big text by a big name, and rightly part of the history of medicine canon.

8.     W.F. Bynum, Science and the Practice of Medicine in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1994)

History of medicine as a discipline is indebted enough to the work of William Bynum to have an annual prize in his name for the best essay on the subject. The book does what it says in the title, through a broad but rigorous examination that unearths modern medicine’s roots in the long nineteenth century.

9.     Michel Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith (Vintage, 1963)

Like Daston and Galison’s Objectivity, Foucault’s analysis of medicine means never seeing things in quite the same way. I can’t pretend Foucault is an easy read, but the argument that science is not pure or objective, influenced instead by societal and cultural pressures, is both well made and well evidenced here.

10. Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute: The Politics of the Corpse in Pre-Victorian Britain (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987)

Yes, another nineteenth century one, and yes, another one that casts a steely gaze on the history of anatomy particularly, in this case, dissection and class. Cadavers were hard to come by in the early nineteenth century, (they were mainly executed criminals or those who donated their body to science), but in increasingly high demand for surgical training. The passing of the 1832 Anatomy Act changed all this; it reduced the rate of body snatching, wherein graves were robbed of their corpses to supplement the need for fresh, dissectible material, by finding a new source. This source was the bodies of those who died destitute in the workhouse, with Richardson’s history making an argument for this practice as a punishment for poverty.  Richardson has also written on Gray’s Anatomy (the textbook, not the TV show).


Verity Burke

Doctoral student at the University of Reading, researching a collections-based English Literature PhD on science communication and anatomy in Victorian popular fiction; currently working with the Francis Cole Library of Early Medicine and Zoology. Other research interests include anatomical illustration, taxidermy, the History of Science and Medicine, Material Culture, nineteenth-century medical jurisprudence and the Victorian notion of the criminal. – From Academia Profile

Let me know if any of your own faves feature, or add to my ever-growing reading list by recommending me some via:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/verityburke_
Academia: https://reading.academia.edu/VerityBurke


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