#1 Eske Willerslev: What We Can Learn From Ancient Genomics

In the past two decades, ancient DNA research has progressed from the retrieval of small fragments of mitochondrial DNA from a few specimens to large-scale genome studies of ancient human populations, the diseases they carried, and the environment surrounding them.

Increasingly, ancient genetic information is providing a unique means to directly test theories in archaeology, anthropology, ecology, evolution, and medicine.

Initial results have changed the way we look at long debated topics such as early peopling of the Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas as well as on human genetic adaptations and pathogen evolution.

#2 Jørgen Lange Thomsen: The History of DNA Use in Forensic Medicine

Alec Jeffreys made by accident his groundbreaking discovery in September 1984 on the use of DNA polymorphism in crime work. It only took a couple of years before the police applied his discovery on homicide cases. As a forensic pathologist I took part in ‘The Miracle’, since it was introduced in Denmark in the early nineties.

In my presentation, I shall describe the use of the DNA technique, including the possible pitfalls.
Cases of homicides and sexual abuse will be mentioned.

#3 Eva Åhrén: Figuring it out: Visualizing medical subjects

Throughout history, visual communication has been crucial in medical practice, education, and research. This talk deals with image-making in the history of Western medicine, focusing on three main categories: anatomical illustrations, patient portraits, and representations of microscopic observations. I will argue that visualizations are an integral part of medical knowledge production, as well as communication.

The remarkable woodcuts in Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica of 1543, represent a qualitatively and quantitatively new approach to visualization. The sheer number of images, expertly printed on large paper sheets had never been seen in a book on the human body before. Neither had the degree of accurate detail and the high quality of the work of the artists involved. Whereas earlier representations of bodies were more schematic, this new style emphasized a kind of naturalism, drawing on the rhetoric of direct observation. This section of the talk will discuss two main styles of anatomical art in the Western tradition: universalization and specificity.

While anatomical imagery could idealize bodies for the sake of universality, images of morbid anatomy and diseased patients have to be specific. There are many ways of achieving this. First, I will show Norwegian artist J. L. Losting’s portraits of patients with leprosy, which open a window into a specific time and place. Second: old photographs of people with war wounds or disorders like scoliosis, approach the patients head-on, in a revealing, but often respectful manner. Third: wax moulages and photos of dermatological and venerological conditions focus instead on the lesion, making it the object of the portrait, rather than the patient.

Finally, I will discuss how scientific objects in medicine are visualized, as a crucial part of the research process, as well as a means of communicating results. Making images is a way of figuring things out.

#4 Jan Bondeson: The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities in Old Picture Postcards

In the 1900s and 1910s, there was a multitude of human curiosities on show both in Britain and continental Europe: giants, dwarfs, conjoined twins, abnormally fat or thin people, and individuals with severe congenital deformities. Some of the ‘freaks’ were self-made: men growing abnormally long beards, fasting artists going without food for months, and people aiming to walk around the world for a wager.

Since this period of high interest in human phenomena on show coincided with the great postcard boom in Edwardian times, there is no shortage of images to illustrate this forgotten chapter of the history of medicine.

#5 Øivind Larsen: The Medical History Congresses 1967-2019 – Some Reflections

In this keynote presentation, some impressions from the Nordic Medical History Congresses (NMHC), which started in Gothenburg in 1967, are put forward. With its biannual pace, the series has arrived at number 27 – 52 years later – with its present conference in Copenhagen in 2019.

Based on personal attendance at most of the conferences, glimpses from the series of meetings are reviewed in order to reflect on some basic traits of medical history as a topic and as a discipline. Most sides of what has been perceived as belonging to medical history, have been presented at the conferences. Topics have varied from e.g. Icelandic sagas to hard core demography.

In their approach, papers have ranged on a scale between in-depth science and journalistic overviews. Methodological issues of different kinds relating to history, medicine, and health have come to sight. The congresses also reflect the sometimes strained relationship to neighbouring disciplines as different as epidemiology and history of ideas, and also the relationship between different professions in medicine and the health services.

The question about what medical history really is, and what it is used for, has been an underlying theme all the time. It is argued that five decades of Nordic medical congresses not have been able to solve the identity problem of medical history. Why so?

An international congress series like this should have an obvious potential to define borders and standards for topics taken up, and to develop as an arena where new knowledge is presented. To what extent has the congress series succeeded to unite all those people in the Nordic countries who are interested in the past and the future progress in medicine and health?