HPS Seminar - Dr Sally Frampton (Oxford)

A New Power: Medical Journalism in the Late Nineteenth Century

In 1853 the obstetrician and former Lancet journalist William Tyler Smith described the medical press as ‘emphatically a new power; but it has already proved itself not the least of the powers of the profession…no delusion can long pass undetected, no imposture unexposed, and, I will add, no wrong unredressed…it is thus that the medical press must become more powerful than Halls or Colleges in uniting the whole profession as one body’. Smith’s words alluded to the significant impact of medical journalism upon the profession over the course of the preceding decades. His lifetime had seen a striking expansion in the number of medical journals published in Britain. But the ‘new power’ he referenced also spoke to medical journals’ role in shaping professional and ethical codes of conduct. The last three decades of the nineteenth century would see a further rapid expansion in medical journalism, with publishers and editors responding to a trend toward specialist medicine as well as a growing demand for popular health literature among the public. This paper focuses on that period, when the vast constellation of medical and health-related journals available prompted the profession to re-examine the objectives and ethics of the medical press itself. Doctors premised their increased cultural authority upon an ideal of their professional community as motivated by selfless concern for the sick. But the taint of trade which came with journals meant that doctors often operated in the world of journalism with a sense of unease, carefully working to avoid accusations of advertising and self-promotion. The resurgence of ‘popular’ medical and health journals revealed a profession situated uncomfortably within the increasingly tumultuous world of mass print, where, in the 1880s, commercialism, medicine and literature were blending together in ever more visible ways, heightening tensions around the ethics of medical publishing. I’ll conclude by looking at how anxieties about advertising fostered greater dialogue between medical journalists across Europe and America, contributing to the creation of the International Association of the Medical Press in 1900.

Location: Baines Wing G36