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Book and Media Reviews
November 19, 2008

The Impact of Hospitals 300-2000

JAMA. 2008;300(19):2315-2316. doi:10.1001/jama.2008.637

Hospitals, being a nerve center of modern medicine, have long attracted historical attention. Traditional histories of hospitals tend to focus on a single institution and often are written by practitioners with a penchant for history who have been associated with the institution. Such histories generally privilege personalities and personnel, internal institutional developments and events, and medical progress. In recent decades, however, with a tidal wave of PhD historians engulfing medical history, the story of hospitals has changed. There is less celebration of institutional achievement and more comparative analysis, usually from a multidisciplinary perspective. These new historical trends are very evident in The Impact of Hospitals 300-2000, a volume that aims to “arrive at a rounded view of the hospital in society” (p 37). Sixteen essays (plus a thoughtful introduction) are grouped around 5 major themes: patrons, patients, buildings (“the visual”), landscape, and death. In time and place, the individual studies range from Byzantium through 18th-century Italy to late 20th-century Canada. As regards place, Byzantium and Canada are the outliers; all of the other essays focus on Europe, and Western Europe at that: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and England. Nor are the thematic groupings evenly weighted. There is a heavy balance in favor of patrons (5 essays) and a light touch on the demographic impact (2 essays). Buildings, landscapes, and patients get 3 essays apiece. Stylistically, all of the authors adopt an interdisciplinary perspective and an eclectic approach to sources. They do not restrict themselves to documentary records in their explorations of the past: brick, wood, stone, glass and paper, inscriptions, prints, canvas, landscape, statistics, maps, plans, and archaeology are all used to illuminate corners of hospital history remote from the conventional.