Perspective: Teaching and Mentoring the History of Medicine

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Many predict a takeover (seen by some as hostile, and by others as inadvertent) of professional virtues and values by government and capitalism. One source of professional virtues and values consists of lessons from the history of medicine as taught and mentored by Sir William Osler. Some medical schools have required courses in medical history, but proposing a new requirement would probably be a tough sell to most curriculum committees. Osler himself argued against compulsory courses in medical history. The authors propose that exposing medical students to the history of medicine promotes at least two of the seven types of professionalism identified by Hafferty and Castellani. Exposure to the evolution of medical science and to exemplary physicians of bygone eras promotes nostalgic professionalism, which, although in some ways suspect and naïve, fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity as members of a profession, not a trade, whereas exposure to the evolution of medicine as a public service, to the sad history of health care disparities, and to patients’ perspectives promotes activist professionalism, fostering a sense of civic responsibility and opposition to excessive commercialism.

Steps to promote such exposure include (1) identifying faculty, community physicians, and others interested in the history of medicine, (2) including the history of medicine in faculty development programs, (3) considering a segment in the history of medicine during the introduction to each major course, (4) sponsoring history clubs, and (5) promoting environments favorable for mentor–protégé relationships for faculty and students with further interest.

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