About the Centre

The Centre for Medical History was established in 1997 to enhance the University's reputation for research within the field of medical history, and for the social study of contemporary medical and health-related activities. The Centre brings together colleagues in the disciplines of HistoryEnglishSociologyPsychologyClassics, Complementary Health, Centre for Genomics in Society (EGENIS), College of Medicine and Health and the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, all of which are dedicated to advancing methods and areas of research within the history of medicine and medical humanities.

We have made significant advances in the fields of the history of mental health, fertility, sexual knowledge, medical statistics and the development of institutional care. We have built close links with medical and healthcare professionals in the region, including the NHS Trusts and General Practices. In addition there are several medical and specialist care institutions around Exeter with rich collections of records stretching back over the past two centuries, providing many opportunities for research in the locality.

Major Wellcome Trust awards

In 2003, research in the Centre was framed by a five year Wellcome Trust Strategic Award entitled 'Health, Heredity and the Environment, 1850–2000'. Research linked to the designated themes of the award focused on:

  • Occupational & environmental health
  • Mental illness and mental disability
  • Gender, sexuality and the family

The Centre for Medical History was subsequently successful in securing Wellcome Trust funding for a five year project: 'Environments, Expertise and Experience: the Transmission and Boundaries of Medical Knowledge and Practice'. The project started in October 2008 and encompasses research under three main headings:

  • Environments, bodies and boundaries
  • Sexual knowledge, sexual experiences and health
  • The transmission and boundaries of medical knowledge and practice

This strategic funding culminated in two prestigious Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Awards.  

In October 2012 Professor Jonathan Barry was awarded an inaugural Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award in the Medical Humanities for his five year project 'The medical world of early modern England, Wales and Ireland, c.1500-1715'.  The project aim was to develop a groundbreaking database with biographies of all medical practitioners active in England, Wales and Ireland between 1500-1715. The database will be used to produce the first all-round study of the nature and impact of medical practice in early modern Britain and will be published as a major monograph by a leading university press.  The project team members included Dr Peter Elmer, Dr Justin Colson, Dr Alun Withey and Dr John Cunningham.

In October 2013 Professor Mark Jackson was award a five-year Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award ‘Lifestyle, health and disease: changing concepts of balance in modern medicine’.  The principal aims of this research are to investigate the ways in which changing notions of balance have shaped scientific and clinical models of healthy lifestyles and to understand the manner in which preoccupations with balance have structured our lives.  Historically grounded but employing a number of disciplinary perspectives, it will analyse clinical and scientific investment in notions of balance and the shifting political and cultural authority of the concept within modern societies.  The central premise is that balance has constituted not merely an object for scientific and clinical enquiry, but also a rhetorical device employed to articulate variable anxieties about well-being, environmental sustainability and political security. In this context, the research will also endeavour to re-assess the value of trying to achieve balanced lives and consider alternative concepts for understanding and explaining patterns of health and disease. Project team members included Dr Ali Haggett, Dr Martin Moore, Dr Ayesha Nathoo, Fred Cooper, Natasha Feiner and Nicos Kefalas.

In September 2015 Professor Kate Fisher and Dr Jana Funke were awarded a Wellcome Trust Joint Investigator Award entitled Rethinking Sexology: The Cross-Disciplinary Invention of Sexuality: Sexual Science Beyond the Medical, 1890-1940.

Part of the Sexual Knowledge Unity, this interdisciplinary project at the University of Exeter seeks to rethink the history of sexual science, the mainly Western attempt to understand sex scientifically that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. It critiques the assumption that 'sexology' existed as a primarily medical field of knowledge. The research reconsiders how modern understandings of sexuality were constructed by scholars from across the human, social and medical sciences who began to work together to understand the biological, psychological and cultural dimensions of sexual behaviour. The core research group working on this project are Professor Kate Fisher, Dr Jana Funke, Dr Jen Grove, Dr Sarah Jones, Dr Ina Linge and Kazuki Yamada.


Research distribution

We share our work with a variety of audiences in a number of ways, including:

  • Interdisciplinary conferences, symposia, workshops and seminars;
  • Collaborative projects with external organisations, eg the Met Office and Devon Record Office;
  • Widening participation activities with schools;
  • Public engagement events and lectures.

Staff and affiliates

In addition to core staff, the Centre benefits from the experience and expertise of Affiliates, Honorary Fellows and Professors.