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History of the Health Sciences -- Resource Guide: Introduction/Definitions

This site provides an introduction to resources used in research dealing with the history of medicine and other health sciences.


This guide is a brief introduction to resources for the study of the history of the health sciences including indexes, bibliographies, texts, encyclopedias, and guides to the literature.  Both print and non-print sources are listed.  The guide is far from comprehensive.  There are hundreds of additional relevant resources that are available to University of Iowa students and faculty.  Remember also, that through interlibrary loan, the Hardin Library is able to obtain copies of documents not in our collection.  Please feel free to schedule a reference consultation with me before beginning your research. 


Types of Sources

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied, or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs) and they reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  

Secondary sources are works that interpret or analyze an historical event or phenomenon. They are generally at least one step removed from the event. Some secondary sources attempt to convince readers of a specific opinion or position. Examples include scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.  

Tertiary sources are works that aid in the location of either primary or secondary sources.  Examples include encyclopedias, dictionaries, biographical compilations, indexing and abstracting services, bibliographies, and library catalogs. 

Other Definitions

Historiography:  Historical scholarship done on a subject.  For example, until the late 1970's, there was little on the subject of blacks or women in the history of health care.  As new sensibilities or new resources come to light, the historiography on a subject may change. 

Historicism:  Application of one's own sensibilities to a historical topic.  For example, when reading racial epithets voiced in the 1950s the reader must appreciate the times in which the language was used.  While it does not excuse, historicism adds context to how a pattern may have developed and what lessons it can teach us about today's climate in health care, politics, economics, etc. 

Time Periods

Ancient History:  The period of history before 500 of the common era (A.D.)

Medieval History:  The period of history from the year 500 through 1450 of the common era

Early Modern History:  The period of history from 1451 through 1600 of the common era

Modern History:  The period of history from 1601 of the common era to the present 

Damien Ihrig

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Damien Ihrig
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Curator, John Martin Rare Book Room

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