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From Grave Robbers to Gene Therapy: The Rise of Modern Medicine - HIS00109I

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Alexander Medcalf
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22
    • See module specification for other years: 2022-23

Module summary

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.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to important specific historical themes and topics with a clear chronological or geographical focus;
  • To enable them to work on those topics by combining access to the specialised expertise of staff through lectures with their own close study and discussion of issues and reading;
  • To deepen students’ understanding and appreciation of a range of historical subjects and issues; and
  • To support students’ progression from the broad chronological and conceptual work undertaken at Stage 1 of their programme to more detailed and rigorous study of particular topics.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have a broad overview of specific historical themes and topics with a clear chronological and geographical focus;
  • Be able to evaluate different interpretations of the subject matter and approaches to it;
  • Gain a critical awareness of the primary material and secondary works used in these interpretations and approaches; and
  • Be able to synthesise information from lectures, discussion groups and reading to make evidence-based arguments both orally and in writing.

Module content

Teaching Programme:
This 20-credit module consists of sixteen twice weekly lectures delivered in weeks 2-9 plus one round-up session in week 10, and eight 90 minute discussion groups.

The lecture programme will likely include the following :

  1. From bedside to laboratory medicine
  2. The Birth of the Clinic
  3. Grave-robbing, surgery and the poor
  4. Public health and political economy
  5. The rise of research in Germany
  6. Physiology and animal experiments
  7. Was there a bacteriological revolution?
  8. Medicine and Empire
  9. Drugs
  10. Who pays for medical research?
  11. Technology in the hospital
  12. Is medicine an art or a science?
  13. Nazi doctors
  14. Psychological experiments
  15. Controversy and drug regulation
  16. 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?


Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 2,000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will be required to write a 2,000-word procedural essay for formative assessment, due in either week 5 or week 7 of the autumn term. They will then complete a 2,000-word essay for summative assessment, due in week 1 of the spring term.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 2,000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. Fontana Press, 1999.

Harrison, Mark. Disease and the Modern World: 1500 to the Present Day. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004.

Brunton, Deboarh (Ed). Medicine Transformed: Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1800-1930. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.