2019 Annual Report

I am pleased to write that, once again, this past year has been a very productive one for the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, as well as for me personally.

The Center has continued its support and mentorship of the Society for the History and Philosophy of Medicine, which has served as the Medical School’s premier vehicle for the teaching of medical history since 1929.  To that end, the Center has helped promote a wide-range of monthly topics, including discussions of diversity in medical education, the history of the eugenics movement in America, the history of women in the U-M medical school, the state of surgery and medicine in the Civil War, and other topics.  In December, we hosted a group of medical students so that one of our Medical Humanities students could introduce a play on reproductive rights that she had written.  Her fellow students performed a “table reading” of the play followed by a discussion of the important issues it raised.

Throughout the spring and summer the Center joined other Medical School units in an effort to create a central database of the School’s vast collection of art and artifacts.  The Center alone is home to nearly 1,000 items, ranging from antique bleeding bowls to a complete iron lung.  The new cataloging system will eventually allow for community members to access the information related to this collection and will allow the Center and other units to create online galleries and exhibits of our items.

We continue to work on our digital encyclopedia of the 1918-1919 influenza in America. The first edition of this massive historical project was formally launched on October 12, 2012 to critical acclaim [www.influenzaarchive.org].  It is the largest digital archive of a pandemic ever created. It also includes the detailed histories of the epidemic as it played out in over 50 U.S. cities.  I am pleased to report that the encyclopedia is widely used by historians, students, pandemic modelers and public health professionals around the world.  It is, without doubt, the most ambitious and widely disseminated project ever accomplished at the Center.  The second edition was launched in the October of 2018, and we are presently working on incorporating even more digitized documents into the collection.

Beginning in the spring, the Center underwent a review process lead by the Office of the Dean.  This review allowed us to reflect on the important work the Center has done, our scholarly contributions in the history of medicine, and the teaching, mentorship, and public programming we have provided the University and wider community.  It also gave us the opportunity to solidify our plans for a slate of upcoming events, programs, digital projects, and research that we will begin to roll-out in the new year.

On March 26, 2020 the Center and the Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI) will co-sponsor “The ACA Turns 10,” a panel discussion on the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act, in the Great Lakes North and Central rooms of Palmer Commons.

In the fall, 2020 we will be hosting the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Deborah Blum for a multi-day program of lectures and workshops on medical journalism.  In addition, we will be rolling out a faculty affiliate program, launching a digital history project, and collaborating with units across the University on a host of events.

This winter, we will again offer our Literature and Medicine Course (English 317).  Four years ago, we developed a course on medicine and literature with colleagues in the English Literature and Language Department, designed for undergraduates at the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science and the Arts.  It is an extremely popular course (40-50 students per course, with a waitlist of students hoping to enroll into the class).  Typically, we have taught this course during the Fall term, such as in the fall of 2018, but is being offered this year in Winter 2020.  It is taught by myself and Professor Michael Schoenfeldt.  It is an excellent vehicle for introducing college students to the medical humanities. The student body is diverse in terms of race, gender and ethnicity as well as in professional aspirations (from pre-medical students, to those studying literature, writing or the humanities).  The course changes subsequent to end-of-term course evaluations and though individual office hour visits.  We both strive to meet individually with each student to get a sense of how they are doing in the class and what new books or topics might be incorporated for future sessions.  At the end of each term, a communal student feedback and evaluation session is offered.  Student reviews for this course have been uniformly excellent.

For our fourth year medical students, we continue to teach an Elective in the History of Medicine/Medical Humanities.  The prospective student meets selects a topic of interest, develops a reading list to study during the month of the selective and meets two or more times a week to discuss these materials and to develop a 2,500-word essay for a grading and evaluation.  Although this is a labor intensive means of teaching, it has been very successful for the motivated student who desires a “crash course” on a particular aspect of medical history or humanities.  Recent student topics have included the history of reproductive health, representations of disease in opera, tuberculosis sanatoriums in Michigan, the history of children’s health in the US, the history of health insurance in the U.S., women and medicine, ancient medicine, and the symbolism of the Hippocratic Oath.

This fall, Oxford University Press published a compendium of several decades’ worth of my writings on the history of medicine entitled Literatim:  Essays on the Intersections of Medicine, Literature, and Popular Culture.  Previously appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the PBS NewsHour, and other scholarly venues, this new volume is annotated with new materials, interstitial essays, and references, and is aimed at undergraduates, medical students, and physicians interested in the history of medicine and the medical humanities.

I am currently in the wonderful throes of writing my eleventh book on the history of the discovery of DNA, tentatively titled Helix: The Epic Race to Discover DNA’s Structure.  For this book I have conducted research at a host of domestic and international archives, including Cambridge University, the Wellcome Library, Oxford University, the Naples Zoological Station, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the American Philosophical Library, the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, the Oregon State University, the California Institute of Technology, the Nobel Prize Archives in Stockholm, and other libraries.  I am currently on-track to deliver the completed copy to W.W. Norton and Co. for publication in the spring of 2021.

I have also continued writing my monthly column on the history of medicine for PBS NewsHour.  This work provides a steady traffic of consumers, scholars, journalists, and readers to the Center for the History of Medicine, both digitally and in-person.  I have followed these columns up with regular appearances on Michigan Public Radio’s Stateside with Cynthia Canty show.  Both endeavors have produced incalculable positive interest in and support of the Center’ work and supports serious and educational public broadcasting in our state and nation.

In May 2019, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine presented me with its Distinguished Medical Alumnus Award, the highest honor it “bestow[s] on those whose outstanding professional and personal achievements exemplify the heritage of excellence of Johns Hopkins Medicine.”

The staff at the Center remain excited about our work at Michigan Medicine and about these new offerings.  We believe they will serve to elevate the importance of the Center and its work, both on campus, in Ann Arbor, throughout the state of Michigan, as well as nationally and internationally.

We look forward to working with and learning from you, our University of Michigan and Michigan Medicine colleagues, in the years to come.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and rewarding 2020!







Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, Center for the History of Medicine