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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: May 2012

1 - What is the History of Medical Ethics?

from PART I - AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORY OF MEDICAL ETHICS
Summary

INTRODUCTION

This chapter's title is an interrogative: “What is the history of medical ethics?” Readers perusing the table of contents might be prompted to ask precisely this question. The expected chronological account seems hidden behind a façade of unfamiliar rhetoric about discourses, life cycles, and society. Our approach reflects a new era of scholarship on the history of medical ethics. Because readers may not be cognizant of the new scholarship, we introduce this volume with a chapter exploring the history of the history of medical ethics and the reasons why scholars have begun to take new approaches to the subject.

HOW OLD IS “MEDICAL ETHICS”?

Histories have to begin somewhere. The expression “medical ethics” was not coined until 1803, when Thomas Percival (1740–1804), a physician from Manchester, England, introduced it in his eponymous book Medical Ethics (Percival 1803b) as a description of the professional duties of physicians and surgeons to their patients, to their fellow practitioners, and to the public (see Chapters 18 and 36). As Percival was the first person to use the expression medical ethics, there is a sense in which the history of something designated medical ethics cannot predate 1803. Most historians, however, treat the history of medical ethics as coextensive with the history of medicine. They presume that it does not matter when the expression medical ethics was coined. As Juliet famously remarked, “What's in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

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The Cambridge World History of Medical Ethics
  • Online ISBN: 9781139195812
  • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521888790
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