Why does the College have a History of Medicine Library?

Posted by Karen Myers, Curator, on May 31, 2023

I am often asked to track down clinical journal articles for staff or Fellows of the College who are always surprised to hear that the College Library is a non-clinical library in the sense that it doesn't offer access to current journal titles. Certainly we collect items that hold clinical information but this will usually date from another period which, whether it be the 1600's or the 1930's, provide a historical view of practice at that time.

The Library began life as a clinical library however, established in 1940 as part of the objectives of the fledgling College to provide a reference library. Given the small medical publishing scene in Australia international journals provided the gold of the collection. An endowment in 1940 by Helen Mills, (widow of the late Foundation Fellow, Dr. A. E. Mills) with an income of £50 per annum for the purchase of books and periodicals, enabled the College to commence subscription to twenty-five British and American journals.

By the 1950's however, it became obvious that the Library only provided a service to the physicians living in Sydney and it was not providing any real service to Fellows and Members in other locations. Thus Council decided, on the recommendation of the Library Committee, that the Library would instead specialise in medical history. This decision was based on a number of donations received during its early years, including a collection from the Royal College of Physicians of London, which in 1954 provided some thirty medical works published between 1500 and 1900. It was agreed that the journal section be sold and that a medico-historical library with special reference to Australia and New Zealand be developed. Today the collection is invaluable in its content, especially that of Australasian medical history.

Why would a young busy physician want to study the history of medicine? Medicine does not exist in isolation from society and culture. By exploring the history of medicine, physicians can gain an insight into how social, cultural, economic and political factors have shaped the medical landscape that they work in today. It will equip a doctor with a broader perspective, enhancing their ability to recognise the development of healthcare systems to their current form, including inequities and biases. It can also inspire physicians to think creatively in their practice by exploring challenges faced by medical pioneers, whose own struggles can motivate current practitioners to push the boundaries of medical knowledge. What have others gained from studying the history of medicine?