History Dept. debuts History of Science, Medicine and Technology track


We all remember learning about the discovery of penicillin in grade school. Perhaps you remember the thrilled look on your seventh grade science teacher’s face or the pride you felt reporting this story to your parents at the dinner table. Science, society and history are as intertwined as the threads in your science teacher’s Alexander Fleming puppet, and as the world changes, it has become ever more vital to understand the ways in which they intersect.

As the academic year rockets to its close, forces behind new beginnings have been hard at work. Professors of History Febe Armanios, Rebecca Bennette and Ian Barrow have created a brand-new track within the college’s History Department: the History of Science, Medicine and Technology (HSMT). This academic pathway opens up the gates for students to investigate the development of science in relation to society over time and across the world. The hope is that students will explore how governments, societies and individuals that have influenced — and been influenced by — science, medicine and technology.

Middlebury is the first leading liberal arts college to have a HSMT concentration within its History Department. The track requires students to have a core focus of five HMST-specific classes, as determined by the Department of History. Students who declare the HMST track will graduate as History-HSMT majors.

HSMT is a well-established scholarly and academic field that dates all the way back to the 19th century. There even exists a professional society that represents this field called the History of Science Society, which was established in 1924.

“Courses on this track will range from a broader history of medicine, the history of science in colonial and postcolonial South Asia and the development of medicine in the Islamic world to the abuses of science and technology in Nazi Germany, health and healing in Africa and medieval science and alchemy in Europe, among many others,” said Armanios, one of the track’s founders and one of two co-directors of the Axinn Center for the Humanities.

“HSMT will also help students cultivate a historian’s strong methodologies of research, analysis and writing,” she added.

What, exactly, sparked the creation of this innovative addition to Middlebury’s academic repertoire? Armanios said she, Bennette and Barrow developed the track through a Fund for Innovation (FFI) grant awarded by the college in the fall of 2018.

“However, the idea was planted long before that,” she said. “In recent years, I’ve worked on two books related, in different ways, to religion, health, science and media technologies in the Middle East. Ian Barrow is an established scholar of the history of mapping and related technologies in British colonial India. And Rebecca Bennette has been working for a few years on a book project related to the medicalization of conscientious objection in Germany during World War I.”

Armanios also noted that the History Department had already been regularly offering a few classes on HMST-related subjects, specifically a course by medieval Europe by Louisa Burnham and one on African history by Jacob Tropp. “So we started to have broader conversations with our department colleagues about how to turn this growing pedagogical interest into a specialized major,” she said.

This FFI grant has given these three professors the opportunity to observe how the University of Chicago, Yale and Johns Hopkins have long-ago integrated successful HSMT majors at the undergraduate level. These visits provided them with information on how to structure the courses within the track, how to reach prospective students, and the crucial nature of co-curricular programming. In Armanios’ words, colleagues at the three institutions “were very encouraging about our plans at Middlebury and gave us enthusiastic support and encouragement to launch HSMT.”

These professors believe that Middlebury’s HSMT track will prepare students for a diverse variety of professions. For pre-med and pre-health students, this track ignites intellectual curiosity, creativity and empathy through the history courses coupled with scientific content. Recent studies by the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that — as a percentage of applicants — U.S. medical schools admitted more humanities majors, like history majors, than those who majored in biological or physical sciences.

“Students will be able to see the complex relationship between science, medicine, and technology on the one hand, and the larger historical-societal contexts in which these exist in a variety of settings,” said Bennette.

Armanios added that the creation of the track is timely.

“Our discussion with several students in recent years showed that HSMT might be that critical bridge between STEM and the Humanities,” Armanios said. “In the age of Covid-19 and of growing interest in understanding illness, pandemics, medicine, science and their relationship to history, society, religion, and humanity, HSMT will appeal to all students looking for timely, original, and relevant content.”