Medical Anamnesis: Collecting and Recollecting the Past in Medicine

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This paper suggests that the practice of anamnesis—the taking of a patient history in preparation for making a diagnosis, and as well as the related form of investigation, historia—offers a way to understand the role of medical collections and material from the past in generating medical knowledge, —and additionally that anamnesis offers a useful approach to writing medical history. Anamnesis derives from ancient Greek “recollecting” or “opening of memory,” and “taking a history” from ancient and early modern epistemic practices of historia, that is, gathering empirical observations from the past and present. Doctors and medical researchers also perform, this paper argues, a form of anamnesis when they access collections—of pathological organs, experimental animals, diagnostic slides, samples, and data—and theate collections may in turn be seen as constituting institutional and disciplinary memories. It shows that doctors and medical researchers in their work with collections negotiate two ways of organizsing observations that are also present in an anamnesis. One way that clusters and classifies observations,. And anwhile the other that traces developments and orders requires significant past observations to understand the present. This double nature plays out in different ways in different historical collections. Last, the paper itself may also be seen as performing an anamnesis: looking for patterns and tracing a development in medical history. It “opens the memory” of medical collection practices, and shows that medicine is past-heavy and that the past plays a still greater role in modern biomedicine. Anamnesis is thus used as a historiographical stance that seeks to understand present practices of generating knowledge about diseases through an inquiry into the past.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023

ID: 345522860