Medical Historian - How to Become a Medical Historian

Medical Historian

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Medical Historian Job Description

Medical historians frequently work at universities, teaching courses on healthcare history and other historical topics. They may also work at medical schools, and may provide additional medical coursework to students depending on their competencies and training. This narrow historical field is a challenging one in which to find employment, focusing as it does on the past of the medical profession.

Another role for medical historians is that of curators and developers of exhibits at museums that including medicinal history in their collections and displays. The National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian is a prime example of an organization where a medical historian can find work developing public exhibits, cataloging and increasing the accessibility of health-related medical collections, or researching topics for scholarly publication.

Some of these professionals find a career at libraries or archives such as the National Library of Medicine, collating and expanding the collections with high quality materials.




While a main responsibility of Medical Historians is to teach, they also develop public exhibits, organize and provide access to historical collections and carry out research leading to scholarly publications in the field. Almost all Medical Librarians have a degree in Library Research. These are some of the things they are responsible for:

They research, analyze, record, and interpret the history of medicine as recorded in sources, such as government and hospital records, old medical journals, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, films, electronic media, and unpublished manuscripts, like personal diaries and letters.




Reading Comprehension

Must be able to understand written sentences and paragraphs in work related documents and be able to teach what you've learned to others.

Maintain databases

Must know how to keep information current and update databases as time progresses. Must sort info and keep it organized. As historians, you will have countless hours in research, so being able to maintain and store info in databases is important.


Be able to study and research practices and procedures of old to advance today's medicine and teach others the foundation of medicine.

Critical Thinking

Must constantly be devising new ways of interacting with people, adapt to changes, and learn about the things a medical professional needs to know.


Must be able to analyze information and use logic to address work-related issues and problems.

Problem Solving

Use logic and reason to determine the best routes to solve issues as they arise.


Since one of your main functions will be to teach, you must be able to communicate effectively and pass on information. You with doctors, other historians, and teachers to keep them current on medical news, learn a ton about old medical practices, and work to advance the field with your knowledge of the past. You must be able to relay info effectively.


Working Conditions


Qualified medical historians outnumber the job openings for the profession by a comfortable margin. However, there are creative ways to use this training in a career, such as by working as journalists in the fields of science and medicine, or working for a historical organization.

The medical historian job often serves as a secondary career for someone who also pursues nursing or working as another kind of healthcare professional. Research, teaching, or other applications of medical historian knowledge can be fit into many schedules as an additional profession, whether to boost income or follow a passion for the topic.



How to Become a Medical Historian:


To become a medical historian, you have to get a bachelor's degree with plans on getting a Ph.D., as this is the usual degree for a professional medical historian. Your Ph.D. can either focus in the history of medicine or science, or both. You can also get your medical degree and study history in a master's program. Some medical historians are both Ph.D.s and M.D.s or D.O.s. 

The History of Science Society has a list of graduate programs that can meet your needs. 


1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree (4 Years)


Since there are a few options here, you can choose whether you want to go a pre-med route, or major in the Humanities while taking courses in Biology, Anatomy, Physics, and Chemistry, as you will need these for pre-requisites to study Medical History in graduate school. Either way you decide to go, you need to be versed in science and mathematics. If you go a pre-med route your coursework can look like the following:


Grade Level Example Courses

Freshman Year


  • General Chemistry I & Lab
  • General Chemistry II & Lab
  • Biology & Lab
  • Calculus I
  • English 101
  • English 102
  • Humanities Requirement
  • Physics I & Lab
  • Physics II & Lab

Sophomore Year

  • Organic Chemistry I & Lab
  • Organic Chemistry II & Lab
  • Fundamentals of Microbiology & Lab
  • Genetics
  • Physiology 
  • Humanities Requirement
  • Electives

Junior Year


  • Cell Structure & Function
  • General Virology & Lab
  • Microbial Genetics & Lab
  • Biochemistry I
  • Biochemistry II
  • Physics
  • Electives

Senior Year

  • Upper Level Biology
  • Upper Level Chemistry
  • Upper Level Physics
  • Upper Level Psychology
  • Upper Level Kinesiology 
  • Electives


If you decide to major in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health, the curriculum can look like this:


Grade Level Example Courses

Freshman Year


  • Intro in Writing: Medicine Health Body
  • Fundamentals of Medicine, Health, and Society
  • Global Public Health
  • Public Speaking
  • Electives
  • Foreign Language

Sophomore Year

  • U.S. Public Health Ethics and Policy
  • Medicine and Literature
  • Economic Demography and Global Health
  • American Medicine and the World
  • Health Social Movements
  • Health, Development and Culture
  • Foreign Language
  • Electives

Junior Year


  • Doctor Patient Interaction
  • Death and Dying
  • Men’s Health Research
  • Social Capital and Health
  • Evolution of Prosthetics 
  • Elective
  • Gen. Ed

Senior Year

  • Medicine, Law, and Society
  • Autism and Psychological Disorders
  • Global Psychiatry
  • Perspectives on Trauma
  • Special Topics
  • Thesis
  • Project


2. Earn a Medical Degree -or- Skip to #3


If you want to go to Medical School, you must first take the MCAT, or Medical College Admission Test, a 7.5 hour, standardized, multiple choice exam used to assess the applicant's knowledge of science, reasoning, communication, and writing skills. 


The MCAT is divided into four sections:


Section/Category  Section Breakdown
Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
  • 59 multiple-choice questions
  • 95 minutes
  • Tests biology, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry
Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
  • 59 multiple-choice questions
  • 95 minutes
  • Tests biochemistry, biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics

Psychological, Social, & Biological Foundations of Behavior

  • 59 multiple-choice questions
  • 95 minutes
  • Tests introductory psychology, sociology, and biology
Critical Analysis & Reasoning Skills
  • 53 multiple-choice questions
  • 90 minutes
  • Tests reading comprehension, humanities, and social sciences


You can find study materials, MCAT registration, and your test scores on the AAMC website here.


After you pass the MCAT, you can get into Medical School. You have two program choices in medical school: a Doctor of Medicine (MD) program or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) program. Each degree focuses on the same methods of treatment, but a DO degree also focuses on osteopathic manipulative medicine. Whichever path you choose, you are facing 4-5 years in medical school.

Your first couple of years will focus on the following:

  • Basic pathology
  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Other life sciences

In the second half of the program, you will work with doctors and other healthcare professionals to advance your skills and focus in on psychiatric practice. You can also participate in research programs, if you get the invitation.


3. Earn a Master's or Doctoral Degree (2 - 6 Years)


Some university medical schools have programs in the history of medicine. There, you will research and learn all the intellectual, political, cultural, and social history of disease, health care, and medical science. You will gain 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 of today. 

If you majored in the history of medicine as an undergrad, you may be eligible to study in the Ph.D. program instead of going through the master's program as well.  First you need to take the GRE and find out what placement you need to go for. 

Most graduate programs require the GRE for admittance. It's a 3 hour and 45 minute, standardized, multiple choice exam that covers analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning.


The GRE is broken down into six primary sections:


1 Analytical Writing Section
  • 2 writing assignments
  • 60 minutes
  • Tests student's abilities to assess arguments and communicate ideas
2 Quantitative Reasoning Sections
  • ~20 multiple-choice questions
  • 35 minutes per section
  • Tests student's abilities to solve mathematical problems and interpret data

2 Verbal Reasoning Sections

  • ~20 questions per section
  • 30 minutes per section
  • Tests the ability to understand and analyze written material
1 Unscored Section
  • A duplicate of one of the above sections


You can find study materials, GRE registration, and your test scores on the GRE website.


Salary Outlook