Since its founding in 1967, the Medical School’s Program in the History of Medicine has been dedicated to research and teaching in the intellectual, political, cultural, and social history of disease, health care, and medical science. The history of medicine provides students with a historical perspective on the role health, medicine, and disease play in society today. It prepares students to think critically about historical and contemporary health issues. 

Program History

Owen Wangensteen, Chair of the Department of Surgery from 1930 to 1967, possessed a strong interest in the history of medicine, co-authoring a book with his wife Sarah (Sally) on the history of surgery: The Rise of Surgery: From Empiric Craft to Scientific Discipline (University of Minnesota Press, 1978). To secure the University of Minnesota as a center for research in the history of medicine, in 1964 Wangensteen endowed what would be later named the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine and, on his retirement in 1967, a chair in the history of medicine. Owen Wangensteen recruited Leonard G. Wilson from Yale University to fill this chair, which became the nucleus of the small Department of History of Medicine and later Program in the History of Medicine. Wangensteen envisioned a unified center for research and scholarship in the history of medicine at the University of Minnesota, and thus solicited funding for the 5th floor of Diehl Hall to house both the Library and the Department. Although the Library has since been relocated to the Phillips-Wangensteen Building, the Library and the Program for the History of Medicine continue to collaborate in furthering Wangensteen's vision. 

In 2007, the graduate programs in History of Medicine and the History of Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota merged into a new graduate Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (HSTM). For over twenty-five years, these two programs had consistently ranked among the country's best. Although the History of Medicine still retains a distinct program identity within the Medical School in line with Wangensteen’s intent, the graduate-level merger recognizes that the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine is a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, and facilitates studies of these areas in their broad cultural context. The field's rapid growth stems from the increasing recognition that science, technology, and medicine are themselves among the most important cultural phenomena of the modern age. 


Subsequent to Owen's death, Sally Wangensteen established an endowment for graduate student fellowships in the History of Medicine. The Wangensteen endowments remain the core of funding for the Program, but are supplemented by the smaller Warren and Henrietta Warwick Fellowship endowment and several funds for visiting lectures. Resources for research in the history of bio-medicine and public health at the University of Minnesota are plentiful. Beyond the abundant holdings of the Wangensteen Historical Library there are rich archival, book, and manuscript holdings in other University of Minnesota Libraries and Special Collections and the Minnesota Historical Society, which houses the records of many of Minnesota's historically important health care institutions. 

Continuing to Grow in Size and Scope

Under the leadership of Dean Jakub Tolar, the Program in the History of Medicine has recently expanded from three full-time faculty to five, permitting an enlargement and diversification of our institutional scope and mission. In January 2023 we welcomed Dr. Wayne Soon to fill a vacant position in our core Program faculty, bringing expertise in the history of Asian medicine and public health to complement our traditional strengths in the history of American medicine and public health (Dr. Jennifer Gunn) and pre-modern and early modern Western medicine (Dr. Jole Shackelford). In the summer of 2022 Dr. Evan Roberts, a health-care historical demographer, joined us, further enlarging the methodological scope and competence of our unit. Most recently, Dr. Matthew L. Reznicek joined us, bringing with him experience and expertise in medical humanities and an interest in the history of disability. Our new, larger faculty is well positioned to serve the medical-historical interests of undergraduate students at the University of Minnesota, support our graduate degree-granting program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, and create opportunities for medical students to explore the compelling field of medical humanities. 

What Lies Ahead?

Looking to the future, we plan to broaden our curricular offerings to make them more global in historical scope, explore medical and healthcare humanities, and take advantage of the new expertise in historical-statistical methods (demography) and disabilities studies that our new faculty brings. But this is not to say that we are neglecting the local. Dr. Jennifer Gunn is busy at work on a history of American rural medicine and health care delivery, which will emphasize Midwestern health care, and Dr. Jole Shackelford will continue to develop his decade-long examination of the history of biological rhythms research, which enjoyed international prominence during the career of University of Minnesota physiologist Dr. Franz Halberg and others in Minnesota who were associated with his efforts to bring circadian and other rhythms into biomedical research and clinical practices.