Meet Jenna Healey, the new Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine

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The new Jason A. Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine knows most Queen’s medical students aren’t going to memorize historical dates and events as a matter of routine, and that’s perfectly okay.

Dr. Jenna Healey notes that instead focusing on dry facts – that these days can readily be looked up — one excellent use of history is “to take a step back every once in a while and to think about the bigger picture.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to do that when you’re thinking historically because you have that little bit of distance. And then you can apply those same critical thinking skills to ongoing controversial issues or new things that come up within your career.”

“We might be looking at a bio-ethical case from the 1960s and, well, ‘they were so wrong,’ right? I’ve taught history of bioethics before, and we have to think about contemporarily, how did people understand what they were doing, what were the standards of their profession? Not necessarily to defend something that we now understand to be unethical, but to understand what the environment was like for those physicians – and then to think about what we find acceptable. Because, in 50 years, inevitably, someone is going to critique us.”

“Sometimes it’s easier to think about these things historically.”

Healey herself didn’t set out to become an historian – of medicine or anything else. Her undergraduate studies found her juggling her twin interests in humanities and science. To accommodate this, she pursued a combined arts & science program at the University of Guelph. “It was a Bachelor of Arts and Sciences,” she explains, “so basically a BA and a BSc at the same time.”

“I was doing an English literature degree along with a molecular biology degree and I was thinking about going to med school, maybe going into public health, and my other career in my head was to be a science journalist,” she shares. “Part of my program requirement was to take an introductory history of science course because you sort of had to combine the two – and I really liked it. So I ended up getting a summer job in the history department as a research assistant; and then the next summer I worked there, too.”

That’s when she started learning about the history of medicine as a discipline. This led her to do a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Toronto, and later a PhD at Yale. “And I just never left,” she says.

“It turned out to be a very good way to combine my two interests,” she adds, “And to stay within the world of medicine and science without becoming a clinician.”

Prior to being appointed to her position at Queen’s on August 1, Healey was a lecturer at Yale, where she mainly taught pre-medical students. “I’m really excited to have the opportunity to work directly with medical students,” she says.

She hopes much of what she brings to students is that focus on the big picture.

“I want them to think think critically both about the past of the profession, and as cliché as it may be, to learn from the mistakes of the past, and the paternalism of the past, and to really think about themselves as part both of a longer historical legacy, to think about the socio-economic determinants of health,” she explains. “I think history really helps with that: to think about why is our health care system the way it is? How do your patients perceive the medical profession? How does the public perceive medicine? What are the notions they are coming in with?”

Healey also hopes to help students “think critically about the ways new technologies are going to change patient care and the clinical experience, both for physicians and for patients, because technology is something I’m really interested in.”

Healey recognizes that it can be a challenge to “sell” students on the value of spending time on the history of medicine – something her predecessor, Dr. Jacalyn Duffin did in the position for 30 years before her retirement.

“I think you always have to do a bit of justification for why you’re even learning this, and I understand that, as someone who was an undergraduate in the sciences: There is just a lot to do,” Healey says. “There’s a lot to learn, there’s a lot to memorize, a lot of labs to finish. And it’s hard to see, maybe the relevance in that moment, because you just have so much to finish.

“I think, especially in a medicine curriculum, it’s to constantly say ‘it’s ok to take this hour’; this is worth learning, and to get across the idea that people who haven’t taken a lot of history think it’s just a lot of boring facts, and that the point of it is to memorize those facts – and that’s not it at all

“If you leave medical school here and you don’t remember all the details of Harvey’s discovery of circulation, I’m fine with that,” she says. “But it’s more the critical thinking and the historical thinking. And when you do encounter a problem in your career, you can think: how did things get this way? If people take that away, I’d be very happy with that.”

In addition to the lectures and other learning events she has already been working on, Healey has met with members of the student-run History of Medicine group.

“It was exciting for me to get here and see there was already an established a group of students who are very excited about the history of medicine – and that’s all a credit to Dr. Duffin and the program she already had in place and the students are so fired up and excited about it.”

There’s already talk of the next “History of Medicine” trip. “I think it’s a great tradition and I’m really excited about it,” she says, noting all the planning is student-led and logistics (including destination) are in the works.

Dr. Healey will soon be settled into her new office at 80 Barrie Street and looks forward to meeting more students and colleagues.

“I’m very excited and very happy to be here.”


For more on the Ontario Hannah Chairs, check out this link.

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