UW News

May 3, 2007

A brief history: UW Medical History and Ethics

The UW Department of Medical History and Ethics has come a long way since its beginnings as a single course, the “Introduction to Medicine,” in the 1950s. It has evolved from a department that focused primarily on the history of medicine to one that is immersed in some of the most complex ethical issues of our time.

“That first course, taught by Medical School Dean Edward Turner, looked at the historical background of medicine within the context of contemporary medical issues,” said medical historian James Whorton professor of medical history and ethics.

Charles Bodemer joined the medical faculty in 1956 as an anatomy instructor. Bodemer also had a broad understanding of medicine and history. Under Dean George Aagard, Bodemer established the Division of Biomedical History in 1964 to provide medical students an opportunity to understand the philosophic underpinnings of medicine and to contribute historical scholarship. In 1967, the division became the Department of Biomedical History and reflected more of Bodemer’s view that medicine’s evolution and history should be analyzed in the context of its intersection with religion, philosophy, politics and other social forces.

The 1970s was a time of turmoil as the nation grappled with civil rights, the war in Vietnam, and unprecedented technological advances in medicine and science, including the invention of such life-sustaining technologies that for the first time posed the question — Who should live and who should die based on available resources?

“In 1974, Bodemer hired Thomas McCormick, a minister and counselor for medical students, to teach medical ethics,” Whorton said. “McCormick was the first faculty appointment in medical ethics. He was appointed to introduce medical students and other health care professionals to philosophical considerations in patient care.”

Within 15 years, the Department of Biomedical History had grown from a one faculty course to a faculty of six providing 40 courses that covered most of the humanistic and social dimensions of medicine, including its intersection with history, religion, medical education, law, science, public health, sports medicine, and research.

Bodemer died unexpectedly in February 1985. Jim Whorton served as acting chair until July 1987, when Albert Jonsen, Ph.D., an international leader in the discipline of medical ethics from the University of California, San Francisco, was appointed chairman of the Department of Biomedical History.

“Al’s arrival was another critical turning point in the department. For starters, the name was changed from the department of Biomedical History to the Department of Medical History and Ethics to reflect the dual mission of the department — bringing an understanding of past and present humanistic studies to the practice of medicine,” Whorton said.