Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

Shortt, S. E. "Physicians, Science, and Status: Issues in the Professionalization of Anglo-American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century." Medical History 27, no. 1 (1983): 51–68.

Related topics:


In this article, Shortt aims to challenge the conventional historical view that the professionalization of medicine in the nineteenth century was part of a broader story of scientific progress and economic development. Rather, Shortt argues, the key factor in professionalization was medicine's adaptation of scientific discourse. Shortt begins by examining the traditional historical accounts of the rise of the medical profession. Implicit in most accounts, Shortt argues, is the idea that a rise in medical knowledge and competence led to professionalization, which in turn increased medical knowledge. Authors such as Rothstein argued that professionalization resulted from the confluence of this medical innovation and economic competition. Shortt then discusses the subsequent revisionist history, which argued that very little scientific experimentation in the field of medicine occurred in nineteenth century Britain, and that British physicians resisted the adaptation of key scientific discoveries, such as antiseptics and anesthesia. Both of these approaches (the traditional and the revisionist), Shortt claims, rest on a false conception of science as "the discovery of linear truths" (59). Instead, Shortt argues, science constitutes a mode of thinking and speaking about the world: only in retrospect is it clear what scientific claims were accurate (by our standards). Thus the story of medical professionalization is not about the adoption or resistance of scientific truth, but rather of doctors' use of scientific language to express their ideas. Physicians using scientific rhetoric gained social status via their ability to "name, describe, and explain" phenomena, not via increased efficacy (63). Within the late nineteenth century context, the British public viewed science as an objective arbiter of knowledge and social relationships. Medical practitioners could thus effectively use the language of science to attack unorthodox competitors, seize political power under the guise of "public health," and dramatically increase their social stature (66). This strategy culminated in the now pervasive prestige and public trust accorded to the medical profession.

Citations and Related Sources

Rothstein, William G. American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century: From Sects to Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Thackray, Arnold. "Natural Knowledge in Cultural Context: The Manchester Mode." The American Historical Review 79, no. 3 (June 1, 1974): 672–709.
Turner, Bryan S., and Colin Samson. Medical Power and Social Knowledge. SAGE Publications Limited, 1995.
Youngson, Alexander John. The Scientific Revolution in Victorian Medicine. Croom Helm London, 1979.

If you are an editor of Ashplant, you can edit this page.