Today hospitals are of quite ambiguous character. In urban regions they are the hubs of medical care, providing the medical expertise, skills, and technology demanded and expected. Teaching hospitals and medical schools are the shrines of medical progress and of last hope as well, to mention just a few aspects intriguing at first sight. These go hand in hand with other aspects of institutional health care: constantly rising–if not skyrocketing–costs, uncontrolled medical research, as well as issues of quality control. At best, hospitals seem to be machinery difficult to run. Sometimes it looks like they are hardly in control. But even a short glimpse at the history of hospitals will show how under different historical circumstances this situation, and even the sense of an ongoing crisis, have historical counterparts. Thus, the hospital always seems to have been a focus of different, if not controversial, expectations and relations.
If this special situation of historicity and contingency is a main feature of the hospital, a sophisticated view into the sociogenesis of hospitals may not only be of historical value, but also useful for people engaged in running hospitals today–at least for those managers willing to get insight into the dynamics of their day-to-day business. Alas, looking into the history of hospitals, one finds a wide selection of hospital histories dealing with single institutions and places. Most of these histories are conceptualized and written as special contributions on the occasion of anniversaries. Unfortunately, they usually become more and more progress-oriented and hagiographic when a critical approach toward their recent history is at stake. Compared to this special genre, the scientific hospital history is getting more and more sophisticated. In the last two decades, one finds, in addition to medical history, approaches from social history, history of science, urban history, history of care for the poor and social policy, demographic and epidemiological history, history of the patient, and many others. What is still lacking is a general book on the history of hospitals combining different approaches to get a sufficient survey of hospitals in all times and regions.
Into this situation appears Guenter B. Risse’s book on the hospital. What has Risse, the author of the famous Hospital Life in Enlightenment Scotland (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986) to offer? Based on his personal approach as a former hospital doctor and active professional medical historian, Risse develops a framework for a history of hospitals, what he calls in the introduction “hospital narratives and case histories” to describe a sort of a personal history of a hospital in its special time, based on case histories of patients, and thus, combining an institutional view from above with a patients’ view from below. From Publisher