Center for History of Medicine to open at the School of Medicine

Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has opened a new Center for History of Medicine to stimulate student and faculty studies of the ways progress takes place in medicine and science.

The center is on the sixth floor of Washington University’s Bernard Becker Medical Library.

“Washington University is and has been a world leader in many aspects of scientific research and health care,” says acting center director Thomas A. Woolsey, MD, the George H. and Ethel R. Bishop Scholar in Neuroscience in Neurological Surgery. “Our faculty and students will benefit by having an expanded sense of the historic context for their work and studies. That’s essential, and the center can provide it.”

The School of Medicine established the center in 2010. Construction of its physical offices, including work areas and study spaces for students and faculty, was completed in September 2011.

“Our new suite is located one floor beneath the Becker library’s Archives and Rare Books collection, one of the top collections of its kind in the country and a vital source of information for medical historians,” Woolsey says.

Woolsey says the Center for History of Medicine will maintain and expand opportunities for students and faculty alike to study medical history. The center is currently conducting a short course (known as a “selective”) on the history of anatomy for nine first-year medical students. Among other issues, it will encourage students to consider the sources of scientific information.


“A significant example is the case of the medical anatomist Eduard Pernkopf, who was active in the Nazi party prior to World War II. He became chancellor at the University of Vienna and wrote a remarkable atlas of human anatomy,” Woolsey says. “There’s been concern over whether or not the subjects used for the dissections came from the concentration camps and, therefore, over the appropriateness of using this atlas in modern medicine.”

An opening ceremony for the center will be held Oct. 27 prior to a public symposium marking the closing of “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race.” This traveling exhibit from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has been on display on the first floor of the Becker Library since Aug. 8. “Deadly Medicine” highlights how Nazi physicians, geneticists and others in the healing professions were major participants in the Holocaust. It closes at the School of Medicine Oct. 30.

The Oct. 27 symposium, “Deadly Medicine in Perspective,” will include presentations from Hedy Epstein, a St. Louis resident who escaped Germany at the beginning of the Holocaust and was later active in the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi doctors; Garland Allen, PhD, professor of biology, who studies the history of eugenics; and William Schneider, PhD, professor of history and director of the medical humanities program at Indiana University. The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will begin at 4 p.m. in Moore Auditorium in the North Building.

The center is also a supporter of special lectures on the history of medicine that are open to the public. The next presentations, planned for spring 2012, will focus on the Civil War’s impacts on medicine.