Medical training, student experience and the transmission of knowledge, c.1800-2014

Last weekend I attended the conference, ‘Medical training, student experience and the transmission of knowledge, c.1800-2014’ (or #MTSE14 if you want to look over our live tweets), at University College Dublin.* Needless to say its focus, and the discussion generated from its wide-ranging collection of papers, was excellent and very much overdue.

Despite an ever-growing interest in the history of medicine, the subject of medical education and student experience continues to be overlooked (the last international symposium dedicated to this subject having taken place in the early 1990s). Yet throughout the nineteenth century medical education was being increasingly formalized, centralized, and consolidated. It became the backbone of one’s medical career. Strangely, however, it has occupied the negative space in histories of clinical practice and patient care. This omission is incredibly problematic (but I digress…).

So, when Laura Kelly emailed to ask if I would give a paper at a conference devoted to the history of medical training and knowledge production, I sent back an immediate and unequivocal ‘YES!!’. (There were so many excellent papers about which I want to talk that my own paper, ‘Venereology at the Polyclinic’, will have to take a back seat for now. I’ll talk more about it, and about the role postgraduate medical training, in another forthcoming post.)

An important focus of MTSE was the centrality of pedagogy. Traditionally, histories of medical education have been written as administrative histories of major teaching hospitals. They have concentrated on the big names, significant infrastructural changes, and major medical developments that altered practice in these hospitals. Rarely have such histories considered in the implications of the big names and significant changes for the day-to-day learning and experiences of students.

Happily, however, historians of medicine are beginning to recognize the importance of pedagogically-focused histories and MTSE really demonstrated this change. It brought a whole host of issues to the fore and, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will have gathered, I was rather excited by the rich collection of papers.

We began with the keynote address from John Harley Warner, who introduced us to his most resent and gruesomely fascinating work on the photographic history of dissection in American medical schools. As Warner observed, nineteenth-century medicine was often a solitary occupation and so medical schools provided an important opportunity for group learning and for developing a collective professional identity. And this is particularly well-evidenced in the strange collections of photographs in which groups of students posed around tables upon which they were dissecting cadavers. One particularly interesting aspect of Warner’s keynote was the figure of the medical school porter who often appeared in these photographs and who Warner identified as playing a key role in the facilitation of medical education (but I’ll return to this shortly).

Student dissection

Many fantastic papers followed, including Claire Jones’s presentation of her most recent research on the ‘Microbes to Matron’s’ project. Her focus on the pedagogy and practice of infection control in British nursing between 1870 and 1900 offers an important counterpoint to what have traditionally been male-focused accounts of medical education. It is very easy to forget that there were (and continue to be) other groups of trained medical professionals beyond doctors who provided care to a wide cross-section of the population. What also interested me about Jones’s paper were the types of sources she and her fellow project investigators are drawing upon. By using surgical nursing examinations, Jones demonstrated the increasingly active role of nurses in their own education, and in surgical practice more broadly.

Similarly, Neil Pemberton’s paper on teaching crime scene investigation through dollhouse dioramas also prompted us to reconsider the role of women in medical and scientific training. By appropriating the traditional female practice of miniature making, women like Frances Glessner Lee created a new way of thinking about crime scene science.

Dollhouse diorama

Nathalie Sage Pranchère also looked at the important role of women in medicine, speaking about the development of nineteenth-century French midwifery training. Importantly, she also described how obstetric teachers used models to develop the anatomical and obstetric knowledge of their midwifery students.

Midwifery teaching model by Angélique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray

As we saw with Pranchère’s paper, the role of material objects in medical training and practice is becoming an increasingly central focus of historical scholarship and this was reflected throughout MTSE. For example, Jenna Dittmar used the collections from Cambridge’s former Anatomical Museum to demonstrate how human remains allow biological anthropologists to examine the historical tools and techniques of dissection.

Another important theme to emerge from MTSE was the different spaces of medical education. Warner described the dissection room as a space for developing collective professional identify. Michael Brown spoke about the dynamic space of the nineteenth century lecture theatre, in which students and their lecturers were appealing to culturally resonant sets of values. Clare Hickman presented eighteenth-century botanic gardens as important spaces for thinking about the material culture of medical teaching.

Hickman’s paper, like Warner’s keynote, also demonstrated that the history of medical education is never simply about those who learned the art of medicine but also those in the background. Like the African American medical school porters who procured cadavers for students, gardeners were important (but silent and overlooked figures) in the maintenance of teaching spaces and the facilitation of teaching practices.

MTSE demonstrated how the nature of medical training has changed over time and within distinct national contexts. Through an excellent collection of papers we explored the emergence of centralized and consolidated systems of medical training. We looked at the development of new tools of training and the different spaces in which these tools were employed. And we looked at how medical knowledge and codes of professional identity were being assimilated by medical and dental students, nursing probationers, midwives, and qualified practitioners seeking further education.

I came away from MTSE with a new appreciation for the diversity of student experiences and systems of knowledge dissemination, and will certainly be drawing upon these ideas in future. With any luck, events like MTSE will slowly begin to generate greater interest in the important place of medical training in wider narratives of medical history.

*Some papers have been turned into podcasts and are available on the CHOMI website:
http://www.ucd.ie/history/chomi/events/workshops/2014-2015/medical-training-student-experience-podcasts/

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