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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Contemporary history and its uses

CHSTM 017-cooter-pickstone-(2)
Roger Cooter and John Pickstone's 2000 edited volume focused attention on contemporary aspects of medical history

What is history for?  For the fun and craft of re-creation, for finding new ways of understanding human life across time, for allowing us to live with longer back-horizons and for developing a better sense of our generations in time and space. But also to learn more directly from problems in the present.  The history which seeks such illumination is sometimes called 'contemporary history'. It does not have to be recent, for some problems are awfully long; but most contemporary history postdates the Second World War.

CHSTM is one of the world's leading centres for the contemporary history of science, technology and medicine, and we want to develop this work further. Much of our work is now on later twentieth-century history, including projects on cancer, the artificial hip, sports science, infectious diseases, African medical services, occupational medicine, tissue cultures, nuclear industries and computing.

We have particular interest in the contemporary history of the NHS and of the Manchester region. Stephanie Snow, Emma Jones, Helen Valier, Duncan Wilson and John Pickstone have published recently on NHS organisations around Manchester, on the politics of public health, on Black and Minority Ethnic Health Workers, and on the radical reorganisations of Biological Sciences. On the NHS we are working with Stephen Harrison and colleagues in health policy, and with the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change, we are developing a Manchester Programme in Contemporary History.

What do these projects have in common? Several were set up with collaboration from within the disciplines, services or institutions under study. Most involve 'oral history' - asking people about their careers and the places in which they worked. Most force us to find and to secure written and printed sources that might otherwise be lost. Several have also spawned 'outreach projects', which take the results to concerned audiences and involve them in the ongoing process of history making. All this approximates to what Americans know as 'public history'. It involves communities in recording and analysing their projects, their work and their results; but it retains the degree of distance and objectivity which is the hallmark of professional history.

What are the gains? Better records and recordings for future historians; better self-knowledge for the groups involved; and a much better public record of how institutions and services of professional groupings have developed. That record will not dictate future choices, but it can inform them. It can give time-depth and analytical depth for policy making, formal or informal. In times of rapid change, and poor record keeping, such history is more and more necessary, as a support for professionals and a resource for intelligent democracy.
If you are interested in doing such work, as a student, postgraduate, professional historian or enthusiast, do let us know. You are also welcome to contact us if you would like to consider the possibilities for a contemporary history project to be done on a grouping or a problem which you think important.

Recent publications by CHSTM staff and students

Stephanie Snow. "'I've never found doctors to be a difficult bunch': clinicians, managers and NHS reorganisations in and around Manchester, 1980-2007". Forthcoming in Twentieth Century British History.

Emma Jones and Stephanie Snow. Against all odds? The recent history of BME health service workers in and around Manchester, 1948-2000. Lancaster: Carnegie, 2010.

Emma Jones and John Pickstone. The quest for public health in Manchester: the industrial city, the NHS and the recent history. Lancaster: Carnegie, 2008.

Helen Valier and John V Pickstone. Communities, professions and business: a history of the Central Manchester Teaching Hospitals and the NHS. Lancaster: Carnegie, 2008.

Duncan Wilson. "Whose body (of opinion) is it anyway? Historicizing tissue ownership and problematizing tissue ownership in bioethics". In Elizabeth Armstrong, Barbara Rothman and Rebecca Tiger, eds, Advances in Medical Sociology, Volume 9: Bioethical issues, sociological perspectives. Elsevier, 2007.

Duncan Wilson. Reconfiguring biomedical sciences: a historical study of Manchester University in the late twentieth century. Lancaster: Carnegie, 2008.

John V Pickstone and Roger Cooter, eds. Medicine in the Twentieth Century. Amsterdam: Harwood 2000 [paperback, London: Routledge 2003].

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