History at the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities
We are living in an era in which the ethical systems of the 20th century are struggling to adapt to new challenges posed by advances in science, the depletion or spoliation of common resources (e.g. antibiotics), and various aspects of globalisation and international intervention. In some cases, ethical frameworks will evolve but in other cases new ones will be needed. One of the tasks of the historians working in the Centre is to help us understand the dynamics and complexities of these changes so that we can respond to them more effectively. Another is to understand how ethical codes evolve differently across cultures, so that we can organise collective health intervention in appropriate ways. History provides a starting point from which we may reach a consensus on when and how to act.
With these issues in mind, historians at the Centre are working on a range of topics related to the use and acquisition of bio-data and international health interventions. One overarching theme is medical intelligence and surveillance – how information has been obtained, organised and used over time. Another relates to forensic pathology and the international investigation of war crimes – a subject that helps us to understand the globalisation of forensic science. Both these lines of research reveal differences in outlook between different states, global bodies and NGOs. The same can be said of certain forms of health intervention. One line of enquiry examines the history of DDT in public health work and the ways in which frameworks for action are transplanted uncritically from one public health emergency to another. We are also examining the use of mass drug administration in public health campaigns, currently in relation to malaria. MDA campaigns throw up a range of ethical issues relating to consent and cross-cultural understanding and we need to know whether and how successfully these issues have been tackled in the past.
Small walnut medicine chest, Science Museum, London. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0).