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Bodies in History: An introduction to the History of Medicine

Course unit fact file
Unit code HSTM10272
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 1
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Bodies in History provides an introduction to medicine in Western culture from the ancient Greeks to the present. You will learn about the themes explored by historians of medicine including: class, race, gender and national identity. Areas of study include Renaissance Anatomy, Public Health, Eugenics, and Risk Factor Medicine.


To provide an introduction to medicine in Western culture, from the Ancient period to the present. To show how, through a focus on bodies (human and social), historians of medicine address themes such as class, race, gender, national identity, economic life and cultural production, and how scientific and medical theories and practices can be understood as part of wider histories.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this unit, students will have acquired a knowledge of the outlines of Western medicine; skills in linking 'body histories' to wider contexts; critical abilities in analysing historical arguments; experience of presenting historical arguments in written assignments; and experience of presenting oral arguments in group session discussions.


Content may vary from year to year in response to contemporary events and student interest, but will typically address the following broad themes:

  • Bodies in History: A Course Introduction
  • Bodies Explored: Renaissance Anatomy
  • Bodies Ordered: Enlightenment Taxonomies
  • Bodies Analysed: The Medicine of Hospitals and Corpses
  • Dirty Bodies: Constitution, Contagion and 19th-Century Epidemics
  • Bodies and Minds: Psychiatry and Fin-de-Siecle Culture
  • Infected Bodies: Germs, Microbiology and Everyday Life
  • Better Bodies: Evolution and Eugenics at the Turn of the Century
  • Calibrated Bodies: Scientific Medicine and the Machine Age
  • Patient Bodies: Medicine and Consumerism
  • Bodies at Risk: Surveillance Medicine and Modern Patienthood
  • Bodies understood? Review and revision session

Teaching and learning methods

Weekly one hour, pre-recorded, asynchronous lecture. Weekly 90 minute, live, in-person, group discussion session.

Knowledge and understanding

Students should / will be able to:

  • Describe historical developments in Western medical theory and practice
  • Describe and analyse the social, political and cultural dimensions of medical approaches to individual and collective bodies
  • Identify and interpret debates in the medical and public domains concerning the social and ethical implications of medical interventions in the individual and social body
  • Prepare and defend well-argued contributions to interdisciplinary group discussions

Intellectual skills

Students should / will be able to:

  • Critical thinking - capacity to abstract, analyse and make critical judgement
  • Critical reflection and evaluation
  • Synthesis and analysis of data and information
  • Expression - able to make a reasoned argument
  • Decision-Making - able to draw reasoned conclusions

Practical skills

Students should / will be able to:

  • Use library, electronic and online resources
  • Use reporting skills
  • Peer-engagement - responding to peer group views shared in group session discussion, identifying strengths and making constructive suggestions for improvement where appropriate

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Students should / will be able to:

  • Information Retrieval - ability independently to gather, sift, synthesise and organise material from various sources (including library, electronic and online resources), and to critically evaluate its significance
  • Literacy - the capacity both to make written presentations using appropriate language for a target population and to collect and integrate evidence to formulate and test a hypothesis
  • Computer Literacy - ability to use word processing, database, spreadsheets and presentation software and the use of the Internet
  • Teamwork - recognising and identifying views of others and working constructively with them
  • Improving own Learning - ability to improve one's own learning through planning, monitoring, critical reflection, evaluate and adapt strategies for one's learning

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Class discussion and all written work, including exams, requires analysing and critiquing scholarly works as well as primary sources
Group/team working
Collaboration on short in-class tasks during seminar sessions
Students can be innovative in terms of how they address their written assignments
Oral communication
Students encouraged to pose and answer questions in lectures and seminars, and to discuss readings and course themes in seminar sessions
Written communication
Short essay and essay exam for all students

Assessment methods

2 hour examination - 50%

Essay - 50%

Feedback methods

Students may ask questions at any time during workshops. Teaching staff can usually answer specific queries by email or during office hours, and will provide contact details in the course handbook or at lectures. All submitted coursework will be returned with annotations and an assessment sheet explaining the mark awarded.

Recommended reading

  • Cooter R and Pickstone J, eds (2000) Medicine in the Twentieth Century. Harwood Academic
  • Porter, R (2003) Blood and Guts: A Short History of Medicine. Penguin
  • Bynum, W (2008) The History of Medicine. A very Short Introduction. Oxford
  • Bynum, W et al (2006) The Western Medical Tradition, 1800-2000. Oxford
  • Jackson, M, ed (2016) The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine. Oxford

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 11
Seminars 16.5
Independent study hours
Independent study 70.5

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ian Burney Unit coordinator

Additional notes

HSTM units are designed to be accessible to all undergraduate students from all disciplines. They assume no prior experience.

The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) offers a range of 'free choice' units, see The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine Undergraduate teaching for further information. Led by experienced researchers, our teaching explores science as a part of human culture, demonstrating that history is a valuable tool for understanding the present state and possible future of science, technology and medicine.

If you are unsure whether you are able to enrol on HSTM units you should contact your School Programme and Curriculum team. You may wish to contact your programme director if your programme does not currently allow you to take a HSTM unit.

You can also contact the Academic Lead for Undergraduate teaching at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

The unit is offered in both 10-credit and 20-credit versions to meet the requirements of different programme structures across the University. Students will be able to choose the version appropriate to their programme.

10 Credit - HSTM 10272

20 Credit - HSTM 10772