Four ampoules of gonococcus serum, Paris, France, 1932-1933. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Used under CC BY 4.0

From Grave Robbers to Gene Therapy: the Rise of Modern Medicine

Tutors: Sabine Clarke

Module type: Histories and Contexts

Module Code: HIS00109I

What is ‘modern’ about modern medicine? How is the history of health and disease related to wider historical contexts such as revolution, industrialisation and globalization. This course looks at the factors prompting changes in medical knowledge and practice from the eighteenth century to the present day. It focuses on the rise of scientific medicine and explores the increasing importance of empirical observation, experiment, statistics and technology for understandings of the body, disease and its treatment. At the same time, it explores the ethical issues generated by the rise of laboratory medicine. The growth of medical research from the late 18th century generated questions about the use of cadavers for dissection and the value of live animals and human beings for experiments and clinical trials. The increasing centrality of the laboratory to medicine gave rise to drugs that created new opportunities for profit, reformulated definitions of disease and transformed the relationship between doctors and their patients.

Historians do not tell the story of the rise of scientific medicine as a story of unfettered progress. This course considers the changes to medical care and knowledge that have been wrought by a shift to scientific modes of knowledge production, placing these in their wider historical context, and considers the ways in which scientific medicine has helped shape the modern world.

The lecture programme will likely include the following:

  • From bedside to laboratory medicine
  • The Birth of the Clinic
  • Grave-robbing, surgery and the poor
  • Public health and political economy
  • The rise of research in Germany
  • Physiology and animal experiments
  • Was there a bacteriological revolution?
  • Medicine and Empire
  • Drugs
  • Who pays for medical research?
  • Technology in the hospital
  • Is medicine an art or a science?
  • Nazi doctors
  • Psychological experiments
  • Controversy and drug regulation
  • The fall and rise of the consumer in medicine

Discussion groups will likely deal with the following:

  • How should we understand changes in medical knowledge and practice from c1750?
  • What is the relationship between the French Revolution and hospital medicine?
  • Why did university research emerge in Germany?
  • How did empire shape European medicine?
  • What factors lead to the Victorian anti-vivisection movement?
  • Why have historians disputed the idea of a bacteriological revolution?
  • What was the relationship between industry and medicine in the 19th century?
  • Why were doctors slow to adopt x-rays?
  • Is medicine apolitical?
  • What was the context to the Stanford prison trial?
  • Why was the thalidomide scandal important for the history of medicine in the 20th century?


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.