The Object of Writing History in the of Age of Biomedicine

Roger Cooter

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I’m delighted to announce this book’s soon publication by Yale University Press. I’m thrilled, too, that we were able to get permission from the Munich artist, Stefan Birkel, to reproduce (albeit only in black and white – for the original colour image see below) his ‘Das Rad der Ziet läuft gut geschmiert’ (‘The Wheel of Time Runs Well Greased’) – an appropriate, if enigmatic, metaphor for Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine.

Although eight of its ten chapters have been seen before, Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine was not conceived as a ‘best of’ book. In mind, rather, was a volume that would deal explicitly with a subject that historians tend to shy away from: the politics and epistemology of historical writing. Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine (four of its chapters co-authored with Claudia Stein) uses previously published work to illustrate and critically comment on this. Each chapter therefore has a substantial preface in which I lay out not only the personal and intellectual circumstances for its writing, but also the wider and deeper epistemic conditions of possibility for its existence in the first place. Through its engagement with different ‘turns’ in recent history writing — from the pre-somatic, through the cultural, the corporeal, the visual, the spatial, on to the fashionable ‘neuro’ and ‘material’ ones of today — the book comprises, in effect, a history of academic history’s own historicity. It argues the case for acknowledging and even celebrating the fact that history writing is never conducted outside of theory, methodology, and epistemology, but is always inside them.

The hitherto unpublished first and final chapters wrestle more particularly with the ‘so-what?’ and ‘why bother?’ of writing history today – a time when its academic pursuit (and that of the humanities in general) has become like salmon fishing in the Yemen, impossible and increasingly disdained culturally. This occurs, I argue, not simply because we live in ‘the age of biomedicine’ in which the natural sciences have acquired cultural pride of place, and have come to define what we are, what problems we should address, and the terrain on which we should address them.  Rather, it is because what is fashioned as ‘the age of biomedicine’ lies deep within the episteme of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is more than just a political and economic project, which also happens, non-coincidentally, to be much beholden to biocapital (and, incidentally, to have gained a great deal of intellectual capital from the poststructuralist turn in the academy).  It is also an approach to, and understanding of the world, in which history has no place, at least outside the profit-making entertainment industry and the propaganda departments of politicians. It fosters ahistoricity, or the inability to see things as always in history and shaped by it. It does so by celebrating a particular temporal frame, that of newness or novelty, which draws a line under the past in the interest of the present and the future. Present-centricity is its hallmark; future growth (above all in stocks and shares) is its global promise. The weight of history — the past – just stands in its way. However critical history writing, I contend, has the potential to expose and refute this present-centricity, but it can only do so by confronting itself — confronting its own ahistoricity in thinking that the present is somehow a neutral space in which ‘objectively’ to write the past. Writing History in the Age of Biomedicine is therefore at one and same time a chronicle of historical critique, a retrospective reflection on the shifting nature of its conduct, a personal statement of my core belief in the function of history writing as a form of critical politics for addressing the present, and a call to arms.

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Roger Cooter is a Professor at the UCL Centre for the History of Medicine.

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The Tubes and Flaps of Modern Medicine

Louise Crane

I’m reading James Le Fanu’s account of “The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine”. It’s a gripping whistle-stop tour of how medicine changed dramatically from the era of the Second World War onwards. Le Fanu pulls out such glorious gems of whimsy in these tales of triumph, I just had to share one here:

In 1973, reports of the first “free skin flap transfer” gave hope that the old style “tube pedicle” transfer – whereby a portion of skin is removed from a healthy part of the body and conjoined to skin near an area that has been damaged (namely from burns) where this skin tube naturally gains a blood supply from the new site, is then removed entirely from the original area and finally sewn as a flap of healthy skin over the damaged area – could become a technique of the past.

The first of the new microsurgical free skin flap transfers involved the complete removal of healthy tissue from an Australian patient’s groin area and subsequent transfer to the area of damaged skin on the ankle. This technique made use of the newly-invented operating microscope to enable grafting of miniscule blood vessels between the skin surrounding the damaged site and the healthy skin graft. The tension lay in the skill of the surgeon connecting these pin-head sized vessels, and the question of whether they would immediately carry blood through to the grafted skin.

In this case, they did. And here is the gem:

“After 17 days the sutures were removed and a few luxuriant pubic hairs were noted growing on the ankle.”

Le Fanu mined this quote from the original paper in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery*. It is the appearance of the word “luxuriant” more than “pubic hairs” that really makes me smile. I like to imagine authors Daniel Rollin and Ian Taylor enjoyed inserting that into an otherwise standard technical account of an extraordinary technique that transformed the treatment of skin burns.

*Available to subscribers only, sorry.

Louise Crane is an MA candidate at the Centre.