New England Journal of Medicine an Interview with Allan M. Brandt, Ph.D.
Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari PhD, RN
With this issue, the New England Journal of Medicine marks its 200th anniversary. In January 1812, as the first issue came off the handset letterpress, few of its founders could have predicted such continuity and success. (See Figure 1FIGURE 1Illustration from “Cases of Organic Diseases of the Heart and Lungs,” by John C. Warren, April 1, 1812, Issue of the Journal., from an 1812 issue.) John Collins Warren, the renowned Boston surgeon, his colleague James Jackson, a founder of Massachusetts General Hospital, and the small group of distinguished colleagues who joined them in starting the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, and the Collateral Branches of Science expressed modest and largely local aspirations for the enterprise. Boston, a growing urban center, and the wider New England environs had no medical journal of their own, although much medical knowledge and practice was considered region-specific. Although the name and format of the Journal would vary until 1928, 7 years after its ownership passed to the Massachusetts Medical Society, it remains the longest continuously published medical periodical in the world. The prospectus for the Journal, a call for papers issued in late 1811, explained the goals of Warren and his collaborators: “The editors have been encouraged to attempt this publication by the opinion, that a taste for medical literature has greatly increased in New England within a few years past. New methods of practice, good old ones which are not sufficiently known, and occasional investigations of the modes in common use, when thus distributed among our medical brethren in the country, will promote a disposition for inquiry and reflection, which cannot fail to produce the most happy results.”1
At a time of intense debate and controversy regarding the causes of disease, the nature of therapeutics, and the basis of professional authority, the young Journal worked to steer a middle course. This was certainly advisable from a commercial point of view, since it could easily alienate diverse medical readers by endorsing a particular therapeutic system or theory. But this approach also established the ecumenical temper of theJournal, which based its early publications on a commitment to empirical observation and an outlook skeptical of conventional medical wisdoms. As the editors explained in 1837, “It has been a point of ambition with us . . . to make these pages the vehicle of useful intelligence, rather than the field of warfare. . . . The Journal is to all intents and purposes, designed to be a record of medical and surgical facts. It is the medium through which the profession may interchange sentiments and publish the results of their experience” (see Historical Journal Articles Cited).
THE ENDURING PROBLEM OF DISEASE
The observation and investigation of disease is perhaps the most salient consistent feature of theJournal. From the meticulous description of angina pectoris in the first issue to the early descriptions of AIDS in the early 1980s, there has been an ongoing recognition that therapeutic approaches must await the sharp articulation of symptoms. The first decades of the Journal‘s history reflected the intensive concern with the epidemics affecting New England and the new nation, and it was not unusual during the early years for authors to direct attention to the environment as a critical variable in the production of disease. John Gorham, an editor writing in 1828, offered a “Medical Report of the Weather and Prevalent diseases for the last Three months.” Such articles may appear both quaint and humorous from our contemporary scientific perch, but they reveal a serious commitment to understanding more fully the vagaries of epidemic disease that could devastate town and country in short order. Furthermore, they offer a complex notion of causality that characterized much 19th-century medicine, in which disease was seen as the result of interactions of the patient’s individual “constitution” with an ever-changing and often dangerous environment.2 By the late 20th century, many observers would renew concerns voiced more than a century earlier about the environment’s relationship to disease.
DOCUMENTING THERAPEUTIC INNOVATION
The Journal provides a powerful record of the course taken by medical science and its applications over a 200-year period. It quickly became a conduit for reporting new investigations and findings and for summarizing and disseminating evolving medical knowledge across the widest range of practice. After issuing favorable reports on bloodletting, herbal treatments, and other “heroic” practices of the early 19th century, the Journal began to reflect a growing skepticism toward such approaches. Authors increasingly pointed to the benefits of the healing powers of nature — vis medicatrix naturae — as physicians came to recognize some of the iatrogenic effects of their interventions that had previously been difficult to differentiate from the course of serious disease.3Therapeutics based on ancient notions of humoral excess and depletion gave way to a renewed emphasis on empirical observation and experiment. The first demonstration of surgical anesthesia, conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1846 in an amphitheater soon to be renamed the “Ether Dome,” was first reported in the Journal (Figure 2FIGURE 2“First Operation under Ether,” 1846, with Related Journal Report.). Others quickly began using ether in their practices. One surgeon wrote in the Journal, “I performed the amputation of an arm, the second under the use of ether, while the patient was dreaming of her harvest labors in Ireland, and felt grating but not painful sensations, `as if a reaping-hook was in her arm’” (1850).
EDUCATION AND THE DISSEMINATION OF MEDICAL KNOWLEDGE
From the beginning, the Journal has critically covered essential debates about the character and quality of medical education. The editors considered one of their primary goals to be educating the profession, so assessment of medical school programs was in harmony with their mission; after all, these schools produced their readers. In the late 19th century, the Journal frequently noted the great inconsistencies in educational standards and quality. A decade before the publication of the Flexner reforms, prominent Boston physician Henry Bowditch anticipated many key aspects of the report when he called for linking medical education to universities, lengthening the course of study, and demanding deeper preparation in the sciences and wider domains of knowledge (1900). He argued for active learning to replace didactics, a theme that would echo through the debates about medical education. As late as 1900, when Bowditch proposed his reforms in the Journal, less than half the students at Harvard Medical School had completed a college education. After the publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 and the massive changes that followed, the Journalapplauded the consolidation of medical education on a new scientific foundation.
TOO MUCH TO KNOW
With the radical expansion and shifting of the scientific basis of medicine at the turn of the 20th century, the Journal recorded growing interest in and concern about specialization. From a largely undifferentiated notion of medical training and expertise, many new and specific divisions of the medical profession developed.6 Whereas the Journal came to view specialization as the inevitable result of exploding medical knowledge, the creation of medical “specializm” was viewed with considerable skepticism and lamentation, if not outright hostility. Much ink was spilled in attempts to determine the relationship of general knowledge and practice to increasingly specific (and limited) areas of expertise. How would the “whole patient” be treated when specialties had divided the body into organ systems and medicine into categories of disease and authority over various technologies and techniques?
THE PERMEABLE BOUNDARIES OF SCIENCE AND MEDICINE
Despite the Journal‘s deep commitment to empirical reasoning and scientific rationality, cultural and political beliefs and values are ever apparent in its pages. In some instances, professional prerogatives and social assumptions are exposed. For example, when the introduction of women students at Harvard Medical School was debated in 1878, the Journal expressed concern: “It would . . . be impossible to avoid an indiscriminate mingling of the sexes in the dissecting or autopsy rooms, and in the amphitheatres, to witness exercises which justly have hitherto been thought of a character to be witnessed by one sex alone.” Harvard would ultimately admit women in 1945, when the war caused a shortage of male candidates. In the 1950s, the Journal expressed regret that some women physicians with children “have found it impossible to carry on their practices” (1954).
REFLECTIONS ON THE JOURNAL AT 200
While the Journal embraced new science and the critical apparatus of peer review, it rejected a narrow notion of specialism, continuing to cover the widest range of contributions to medical knowledge. In an increasingly atomized medical world, the commitment to publish on cross-cutting educational, professional, ethical, and policy issues pulled together diverse readers, including physicians and other health care providers, public health experts, and policymakers, around issues that were often beyond their immediate expertise. The radical growth of teaching hospitals, federal funding for basic science and clinical research, and academic medical centers (all developments reflected in the Journal) have been crucially linked to the Journal‘s growth, stability, and success.
During the Journal’s first 200 years of publication, medicine and health care moved from the social periphery to become dominant aspects of our science, culture, and economy. The Journalunquestionably owes its success and stability to this monumental shift in the status, authority, and impact of biomedicine. But the Journal has also played a critical role in these developments. By combining a commitment to publishing papers of scrupulous scientific merit across wide-ranging domains, with a recognition of the central questions and values uniting the profession, the Journalhas remained true to its founders’ vision. It has recognized that advances in medical science can finally be assessed only in the context of delivery, care, and outcome. The Journal reflects today, as at its inception, a view that medical science and its applications are fundamentally tied to patient care and public health. It therefore continues to draw a range of readers wider than Warren could have imagined. Today, the ability to disseminate publications so widely through digital technologies promises to bring innovations in medical knowledge to a new set of global constituents. The first hundred issues of Warren’s journal were, of course, distributed on horseback.
HISTORICAL JOURNAL ARTICLES CITED.
New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery, and the Collateral Branches of Science
The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal
The New England Journal of Medicine