CHoSTM: A History

The Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine was founded at Imperial College London in 1993, drawing on a tradition of teaching and research dating from 1963, when a Department of History of Science and Technology was created at the Imperial College of Science and Technology. At that time, Imperial College was expanding rapidly as the British MIT. While in other places the history of science tended to be associated with the philosophy of science, here it was firmly linked to the history of technology. The small department was headed by the newly appointed Rupert Hall, who would lead the department to his retirement in 1981.  The department was then dissolved into a broader programme for the teaching of the humanities to the scientists and engineers of Imperial College. However, the history of science and technology was still taught at Imperial, by figures like Peter Dear, Simon Schaffer and Jim Secord, who created the nucleus of a new programme before he left for Cambridge in 1992.  As a result, David Edgerton and Andrew Warwick were appointed, and the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine was created as a department in 1993. David Edgerton directed the Centre for its first decade.

Why also medicine? For two reasons. Firstly because, as a few pioneering departments had shown, there were huge intellectual benefits from combining the study of history of medicine with the history of science and technology; secondly because in 1988 Imperial College had added Medicine to its title as St Mary’s Medical School was merged into it (other medical schools would follow).

The Centre developed rapidly, recruiting such notable historians of science, technology and medicine to lectureships as Robert Iliffe, Serafina Cuomo, Andrew Mendelsohn, Abigail Woods and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.  Many others, including Elsbeth Heaman and William Thomas, passed through as research fellows.  It did very well in the research assessment exercises. In 1996 it scored 5A – only 5 history departments scored higher – and repeated this placing and score in 2001, with a significantly larger staff.  In the 2008 RAE, which used a new system of scoring, it emerged as the top history department in the UK.

The Centre was centrally involved in expanding the cross London MSc programme in the history of science, medicine and technology with the then Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine (especially with Janet Browne, Chris Lawrence, and Michael Neve) and with History and Philosophy of Science at UCL (notably with Hasok Chang).  CHoSTM’s approach was notable for the way the histories of science, technology and medicine were integrated, often in the same course, in its MSc offerings. This was also reflected in the research work of the centre, in that nearly every member of the staff crossed those boundaries in their published work, which, then as now, was unusual.  It was distinctive also in its connections to general history, and its collective specialisation in history of science, technology and medicine rather than say STS, or HPS. It also had, however, a distinct interest in the study of and engagement with research policy.

The Centre became an important place for PhD training with a distinctive focus and energy. In the two decades 1993 – 2013 at least 30 PhD students graduated from the Centre: more than half of them are teaching history and the history of science, technology and medicine in universities around the world. Since 2013 a further 15 students have passed through the centres doors and have moved into a range of careers in academia, the museum sector and beyond.

Since 2000 the Centre’s work, particularly in postgraduate research, has been supported by a very generous endowment from the Arcadia Trust, which allows us to fully fund a number of outstanding graduate students with Hans Rausing scholarships.

In the noughties the Centre lost some its undergraduate teaching and decreased a little in size.  Imperial College then restructured its undergraduate provision and no longer felt able to increase the size of the Centre to sustainable level.  Thus in 2013, in a very unusual move in the humanities, the Centre moved most of its staff (David Edgerton, Jean-Baptiste Fressoz and Abigail Woods), research fellows and graduate students, and its endowment and ethos,  to the History Department at King’s College London, where it was strengthened by combining with the existing historians of science and medicine there (including Anna Maerker), and by two new appointments (Catherine Gainty and Chris Manias).

The Centre is notable for its size, being one of the largest such groups of historians anywhere, and for being fully integrated into a history department both organisationally and intellectually. Abigail Woods served as head of the Department of History between 2016 and 2020 and is now Pro Vice Chancellor and Head of College of Arts at University of Lincoln. Our aim is to research and teach the histories of science, technology and medicine in ways that change understandings of their history, of history in general, and of the world in which we live today.  Our work has engaged directly with policy-makers and politicians and, just as importantly, has affected national and international conversations about science, technology and medicine.