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Why we need the history of medicine.

Carl Heneghan
Last edited 18th April 2010

‘Wellcome Trust is to close its centre for history of medicine’

Denis Pereira Gray, former president of the RCGP, described the decision as “a real tragedy,”

The issue is in removinh funding form the history of medicine will we able to tell where we are going, if we don’t know where we have come from? If you want convincing then visit the excellent James Lind library

I fear the Wellcome trust may have been hijacked by the heady lights of business and wants to disregard what it might consider as ‘fluff’. Oops, there goes any big grant in the future. The BMJ is right at the heart of the matter this week for highlighting the issue ‘No reason has formally been given for the closure, and a spokesperson for the trust declined to elaborate.’

Here’s a few facts worth digesting upon closure:
• In the past the Centre has been led in the past by Roy Porter, noted for his prolific work on the history of medicine He only wrote or edited over 100 books. That puts most of us to shame. You can get a full list here
• William Bynum, Emeritus Professor who orks on many aspects of the history of medicine is quoted as saying: "The decision has been made by people who are not historians of medicine." It is hard to know who made the decision, was it the current governors? Ultimate responsibility for the activities of the Wellcome trust lies with the Board of Governors. Yet, decision-making authority on research funding is delegated to a number of funding committees and day to day running is managed by the Director of the Wellcome Trust and an Executive Board of senior managers.
• In the last RAE status, the centre was given four stars or "world leading" status for 40% of its work and three stars " internationally recognised" for 25%. On that basis we should be closing down about 90% of UK research that performed worse. Fortunately, in our Dept we performed slightly better so at least I can relax slightly about going out of business on this rating scale.

Created in 1936 under the will of Henry Wellcome along with the Wellcome Collection and its medical history library the constitution states,

The objects of the Trust are:
(point 2) to advance and promote knowledge and education by engaging in, encouraging and supporting:
(a) research into the history of any of the biosciences; and
(b) the study and understanding of any of the biosciences or the history of any of the biosciences.
In 2000 the trust undertook a review of the history of medicine in the UK, exploring its development and current status, and considered its role in this area. Many people with history of medicine interests from both the UK and abroad were consulted.

May I suggest Wellcome, it would be prudent, before closure, to do the same again. Otherwise, I fear this may become a contentious issue on the landscape and damaging to UK historical research into medicine, a valuable subject indeed.

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