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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Major themes in the history of science, technology and medicine

HSTM60511 (30 credits)

Semester One

Classes: two weekly one-hour lectures, 10.00 and 12.00; one weekly two-hour discussion seminar, Tuesdays 10:00.

Contact: Dr James Sumner

The unit aims to:        

  • introduce key themes for understanding the development and institutions of science, technology and medicine (STM) from the early-modern period to the late twentieth century
  • provide an integrated survey of theoretical and historiographic approaches to understanding modern STM
  • introduce students to the chronology and periodization of the history of STM
  • use case studies to exemplify the interdisciplinary nature of the field
  • place the study of contemporary science communication in historical context
  • stimulate students to develop critical and informed judgments on the development of modern scientific, technological and medical knowledge.


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

  • describe and analyse the main periods in the history of science, technology and medicine, 1500-2000
  • understand and compare different historiographic approaches via specific case studies
  • construct and defend an argument according to the norms of scholarly historical research
  • contribute to group discussion
  • read, summarise and critically examine source texts, and present findings orally in a group setting
  • conduct independent research on secondary (and in some cases primary) historical sources
  • clearly present an argument in essay form using appropriate source documentation
  • read for research, including skim-reading, source prioritisation and following up references
  • critically and comparatively appraise source texts
  • give an oral presentation examining a source text, and respond to questions or comments from others


This course provides a broad overview of the histories of science, technology and medicine from the medieval period to the late twentieth century. The course is framed around historical case studies such as the origins of the medical profession, the development of Newtonianism, the formation of civic universities and the role of science in the Cold War. Through these cases, students are introduced to major historiographic themes in the field, including the retreat from whiggism, attempts to retain “big picture” historical accounts, and the value of focusing on audiences and spaces. We emphasise particularly the importance of public science, and engagement between “expert” and “non-expert” groups, in a variety of historical periods.

As this is a team-taught course drawing on staff research interests, the exact content will vary. However, it will generally include the following:

  • The “Scientific Revolution” and the status of natural philosophy
  • Early-modern medical science and practice
  • Newton, Newtonians, Newtonianism
  • Enlightenment and civil society
  • Manchester and industrial shock
  • Public science in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Universities and institutionalised research
  • Medicine, science and Empire
  • Science and welfare
  • Political ideology, planning, and visions of the future
  • Science and the Cold War
  • Science in the media
  • Information science and management

Half the contact time is assigned as broadly lecture-format, including some group discussion and occasional short video presentations. The remainder consists of group seminar discussion based on assigned readings. In a typical week, two or three students are each assigned (by rota) a written source on which to prepare a short presentation in advance. At the class, the students’ presentations, delivered using paper handouts or Powerpoint, lead into broad group discussion on questions raised by the sources. All students are required to read all the sources in advance, whether presenting or not. Required and recommended readings are also assigned for all lectures.
Readings and other support materials are delivered via Blackboard, which is also used for essay upload. Students are encouraged to raise questions about the course in class or via email, and the group email list is sometimes used to continue general discussion on course themes.


3 essays of 2000 words each, of which the highest-scoring 2 count for credit: 40% each

1 precirculated exam, 2 hours: 20%

A comprehensive reading list is distributed at the beginning of the course. Useful introductory reading includes:

  • Peter J Bowler and Iwan Rhys Morus, Making Modern Science: a historical survey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2005.
  • Patricia Fara, Science: a four thousand year history. Oxford: OUP 2009.
  • John Pickstone, Ways of Knowing: a new history of science, technology and medicine. Manchester: Manchester University Press 2000.
  • Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. London: Fontana 1999.


The seminar discussion format of the course gives all students regular opportunities to discuss their ideas with teaching staff. Staff are also available to discuss essay proposals, seminar performance, and general course performance by appointment, on a one-to-one basis. All coursework is double-marked, and essay scripts are returned to the students with both sets of markers’ comments. Examiners’ notes on exam scripts are not normally released, but may be viewed on request.


This is a team-taught course, and will feature contributions from all the active lecturing staff at CHSTM. Full details will be provided on arrival.

View a recent course outline (pdf)