The Essay – Assignment Description
History of Medicine
The purpose of the research essay is to introduce you to academic historical writing and
research. As such, you will use at least one substantial primary source (a historical document
from the period under study) and at least 5 secondary sources that are peer-reviewed original
work by historians (or other humanities scholars, if applicable to your topic). If you are using
journal articles, they have to be published in peer-reviewed history journals (or other
humanities journals like literary studies for example, if applicable to your topic); original
research articles are usually 20 pages or longer and contain lots of references to both primary
and secondary sources. If you are using books, they have to be written by historians; these books
are usually published by academic presses. You may also use chapters from books, if the whole
book is not relevant to your topic. Do not use: articles on history topics published in medical or
scientific journals; popular accounts in general media; internet sources.
Choose a specific and focused topic related to the history of modern medicine (from the 18th
century onward). Make sure there is enough peer-reviewed historical literature (as outlined
above) before you commit to a topic. Your topic can be related to, but it has to go well beyond,
what we cover in the weekly modules (perhaps by covering a topic that is mentioned briefly or
peripherally in the modules, and about which you want to find out more). You can use the
sources we read in class (primary and secondary) as additional sources, but, as mentioned
above, make sure you find on your own at least 5 secondary sources and 1 primary source.
Make sure that your topic is specific enough that it can be adequately explored in 2000 words. A
topic such as “the history of vaccination” is way too broad and not adequate for this assignment.
A specific topic might be “the development of the polio vaccine” or “Lady Mary Montagu’s
introduction of inoculation into Britain” or “the effect germ theory had on surgery in the late 19th
century.” The topic has to be historical; making a philosophical argument about a current debate
in medical ethics, for instance, is not allowed (this topic may be great for a philosophy class, but
this is a history class). Thus: a particular historical episode related to the history of medical
ethics – yes; a prescriptive essay on current medical ethics – no.
Your essay has to articulate and defend a historical argument using specific evidence from your
primary and secondary sources. A historical argument – or thesis – is a complex answer to a
complex historical question such as (to give just a couple of examples): What were the factors
(social, political, intellectual, cultural etc.) that contributed to the development of (a medical
event, discovery, technology)? What were the effects/consequences that a
discovery/technology/medical idea had on medical practice/society? There are many ways in
which you can structure an essay, but an easy one (using these two examples of historical
questions) would be to choose three/four main factors/effects and discuss each in turn,
sandwiched between a strong introduction and conclusion that lay out your thesis clearly and
The word count is 2,000 words.
You can use any academic citation style (e.g. Chicago, MLA), but be consistent.
Outstanding essays will be nominated for the History of Science Essay Prize.
The Essay – Assignment Description