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All Places > History Community > Blog > 2019 > January

While a good number of my students are General Studies and Liberal Arts majors, an even greater number are planning careers in the fields of health care, business, and engineering. Our community college is particularly strong in nursing education and allied health sciences so I am increasingly aware of the need to incorporate health-care related content into my history courses. This semester as I research care of the mentally ill during my sabbatical I am simultaneously reading general works on healthcare history that might help connect my nursing and other health-science students to US history through content that speaks directly to their chosen career paths.


            Historian Christopher Jones (Arizona State University) describes his institution’s efforts to grow history course enrollments in “Building History Enrollments Through Online Courses for the Professions: Lessons from Teaching the History of Engineering” (The History Teacher). Jones writes about the challenge of decreasing enrollments in history courses nationwide. “For those of us that believe history is an essential part of a well-rounded education for any student, be it for reasons of critical thinking, social empathy, or enlightened citizenship,” Jones contends, “it would be a shame to abdicate this mission simply because our classes are decreasing. If students are not coming to us, we should reach out to them.” (The History Teacher, p. 550). Jones’s creation of an online course focused on the history of engineering inspired me to think about ways that I could more effectively help students in the health-care professions to see the value of historical thinking, especially when it comes to critical thinking and problem solving.


In the past I have blogged about incorporating the 1918 influenza outbreak into US history II courses (see “Sharing ‘the Flu’ with Students”). While influenza as an historical topic fits nicely into discussions of the First World War, other medical/science-specific topics are more difficult to integrate. There is also the challenge of deciding what to drop to make space in the syllabus. In the long-term I like the idea of creating a course specifically targeting healthcare students. For now, however, I’m focusing on what materials could be added to my general US and Women’s History courses to enable students to expand their historical understanding of the history of medicine.


Here are some useful websites I’ve found recently are worth exploring:


The Science History Institute offers articles on the development of antibiotics and the science of crop rotation, among others. Their web-based resources Historical Biographies and Scientific Adventurers provide teachers and students with access to dozens of histories of men and women whose work in the sciences have brought amazing advancements including Alexander Fleming and George Washington Carver.


The College of Physicians of Philadelphia publishes the website History of Vaccines in which students can examine historical timelines related to the outbreaks of diseases and illnesses, as well the way in which scientists and governments responded to the challenges.


Many history of medicine websites publish images that document the development of the American healthcare system and the experiences of both doctors and patients. The New York Public Library has an amazing collection of images documenting epidemics and reactions. For classes studying the Civil War, the US Sanitary Commission Collection contains photographs of nineteenth-century ambulances and drawings of camp medical facilities, as well as doctors’ illustrations of patients’ injuries, including gangrene.


Finally, public health films from the Second World War are particularly informative and fun to watch. The US National Library of Medicine’s site The Public Health Film Goes to War offers both animated and live-action videos meant to educate both soldiers and the general public about hygiene and potential medical problems. “Fight Syphilis” (1942) is a particularly good example of how these films can offer students of all majors insight into health-care history while also broadening their perspectives of how Americans reacted to such challenges.


I’m brainstorming ways to integrate some of these fabulous resources into future sections of the US history survey. Any suggestions?



Last October in a blog titled [My] Research Seminar I introduced the Macmillan Community to the research project I am working on during my semester-long sabbatical -- a study of care of the mentally ill in Massachusetts and Rhode Island during the first half of the twentieth century. Last fall as I wrote that blog I was trying to imagine what a semester of research would feel like after eleven years of teaching full-time at a community college.


Preparation for spring semester usually starts something like this for me: I take some time to look the the materials I will be using in my spring courses. I go through my notes, studying the syllabi from previous semesters, to make sure that I remember to implement necessary changes. Often I will do some additional secondary source reading to add new content.


I find myself now in uncharted January waters: Where do I start? It’s time for me to listen to the advice I’ve long given my students about conducting research: plan carefully and ask for help.


My research has been on the periphery of my teaching for three years now, which means I’ve accumulated a significant amount of stuff: books, articles, emails, and notes-to-self about various ideas and leads. As much as I want to immediately get started in the archives, I have instead spent the last few days organizing everything that I gathered in the planning stages of this project. Through this seemingly mundane task I have been able to start a list of questions about potential sources and research materials.


As I’ve become more “organized,” however, I have grown increasingly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that exists on my topic. My typical advice to students about narrowing their topic to something manageable echos in the back of my mind. At this point, however, it is too early for narrowing: I need to visit the archives before I can take that important step. For the time being, therefore, I need to tread water in this sea of names, dates, places, theories, diagnoses, and treatments.


In hopes of making sense of all that is ahead of me I’m turning to the experts for guidance. Over the past two weeks I’ve sent dozens of emails to librarians and archivists seeking advice about collections. I’ve also spent a good deal of time comparing early-twentieth-century diagnosis terminology with modern-day terms. I’m hopeful that all of this prep-work will help me to be more efficient in the archives.


What advice do you give to students as they are beginning a research project? Are there things that you personally do to keep from being overwhelmed by a large amount of material? Any new apps for keeping archival research organized? Please share!