The Future for the History of Medicine – An Opinion

Yesterday (9th of March 2016), the Society for the Social History of Medicine (SSHM) initiated a discussion on Twitter, how #twitterstorians would imagine the future of #histmed – the History of Medicine. The discussion was interesting to follow and engage with, as especially Lisa Smith and Ryan Ross challenged the boundaries of disciplinary research methods. In this short essay, I would like to extend my arguments and contribute my opinion to this whole debate with the help of my findings regarding the relationship between trauma, memory and history.

In my current research, I engage with the concepts of trauma regarding the medical memories and experiences of children in the transition from the Second World War to the post-war era in East Germany. In order to define the trauma as an analytical tool, which I could purposefully use in analysing my archival sources for traumatic experiences of the youth and its ramification as well as the responses of state and the medical profession, a broader approach was necessary, which went beyond the scope of historical investigation.

On the one side stands psychology, where trauma is often analysed under the framework provided by the definition of the diagnosis ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ (PTSD) – a concept, which has been revised since its establishment by the  American Psychiatric Association in 1980. However, in recent studies, which I also utilise for my research, the purely ‘biomedical’ approach to the disease, which neglects the social and cultural context of the affected individual, has been criticised and appeals for broader investigations postulated (e.g., Segal 2015; Soysa 2015).

On the other side stands history, which experiences a boom of ‘memory studies’ since a couple of decades. Eminent figures, like Aleida Assmann, have been able to emphasise the significance of memory in history, especially in its multilayered nature. However, the definitions of its terminology, like ‘collective memory’, and also trauma as an analytical concept has often been blurry and tailored towards a particular context – thereby preventing the potential to re-use the established framework for other historical periods or societies, etc.

This problematic limitation in approaching traumatic events is exactly the point, where history and psychology should form an interdisciplinary network – probably adding sociology and medicine, etc. into this cooperation as well. The historian can provide psychology with the historical, cultural and social context for the potential development of PTSD. On the contrary, psychologists offer historians an investigational template to identify otherwise hidden traumas in archival sources and to create a sophisticated methodology and concept regarding individual and collective trauma. I am not aiming for retrospective diagnoses, but the understanding of trauma and its ramification will enrich the analysis of individual and group behaviour (with the help of sociology) as well as the countermeasures of the state (with the help of political science) and the medical concepts of the doctors (with the help of medicine) in the past.

In my opinion, this connection and the following benefit for both (or even more) academic disciplines seems obvious. Indeed, these kinds of networks already exist; however, far too often does the organisation of a school and the wider university prevent more fruitful cooperations across academic boundaries. In order to bring the history of medicine into a future, where the voices of historians, sociologists, psychologists, etc. are heard in society and the political realm, the interdisciplinarity should be the rule rather than an exception.

Especially today, as the current crisis of refugees and the mood in parts of the European societies suggests a lack of empathy for the traumatic experiences of people from war-torn African and Arabic countries – not least in Germany. For me an interesting and challenging interdisciplinary question would arise in this context: Could the (historically understandable) lack of recognition or even disregard as well as the silencing of the traumatic past of Germans and German refugees during and after the Second World War result in an (un-)conscious prejudice against the refugees of today? Here, the question of transgenerational transmission of trauma, narratives, and memories requires an interdisciplinary approach, which is necessary to analyse the multifaceted nature of today’s thorny issues.


Ackermann, Volker, ‘Das Schweigen der Flüchtlingskinder: Psychische Folgen von Krieg, Flucht und Vertreibung bei den Deutschen nach 1945’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 30 (2004), 434–64
Assmann, Aleida, ‘History and Memory’, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Elsevier, 2001), pp. 6822–29
Bode, Sabine, Die vergessene Generation: Die Kriegskinder brechen ihr Schweigen, 12th ed. (München: Piper, 2009)
Goffman, Erving, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York: The Free Press, 1985)
Segalo, Puleng, ‘Trauma and Gender’, Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9 (2015), 447–54
Soysa, Champika K., ‘War and Tsunami PTSD Responses in Sri Lankan Children: Primacy of Reexperiencing and Arousal Compared to Avoidance-Numbing’, Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 22 (2013), 896–915

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