How can historical medical achievements give us a framework and new approaches for medical care today?

Photograph of Dr. Shelley McKellar

Shelley McKellar, PhD, is the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. She is daring to ask; how can historical medical achievements give us a framework and new approaches for medical care today?

By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

Walking through the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, Shelley McKellar, PhD, caught site of one of the museum’s most treasured objects. It was a heart in a box. The first-ever artificial heart that was implanted in 1969 and subsequently explanted.
McKellar’s curiosity was piqued. How did anyone think it was even possible to create such a device to extend a human life?
“I have always been seduced by the idea to look at the past in an effort to make change today,” she said.
McKellar is the Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, accepting the chair position in 2012. A Professor jointly appointed to the School and the Faculty of Social Science, McKellar was named a Western University Faculty Scholar in 2019 and is the author of three books.
“Objects inspire me,” says McKellar, whose research focuses largely on 20th and 21st century surgery and how it connects to surgical practice today. She says she has always been interested in history for history’s sake and as a researcher, she has a special interest in medical technology, instruments and devices.
In doing so, she asks big questions: How do we define success? How do we agree that technology may be the answer? Is imperfect technology good enough if it can extend a life – even for a short period of time?
She explored these questions and the controversial history of artificial hearts from the 1950s to present day in her 2018 book, Artificial Hearts – the Allure and Ambivalence of a Controversial Medical Technology.
In sharing her book’s thesis, McKellar says that this is an invention that had a lot of difficulties because it was, and still is, an imperfect technology. 
“I argue that it's the desirability, more than the feasibility or the practicality of an artificial heart, that drove this invention forward.”
McKellar is one of eight Hannah Research Chairs in Canada. Established and endowed by Dr. Jason Hannah, the founder of the Associated Medical Services, the Hannah Chairs are charged with creating enduring cultures of teaching and research in the history of medicine and health care.
McKellar’s passion for history can be seen in almost every corner of the School. In leading the History of Medicine office at the School, she has created research and professional opportunities for medical students to pursue their own interests using an historical lens.
The History of Medicine Rounds, formerly known as The Colloquium, is an annual event where students present their research papers. Topics such as Venereal Villains: The Portrayal of Women in Public Health Campaigns Against STIs during World War II; The Carrot and the Other Carrot: Convincing University of Toronto Medical Residents to Train at the Sioux Lookout Zone Hospital; and The Independent Inventions of General Anesthesia in 19th century Japan and United States: Why the Latter Revolutionized Surgery while the Former was Forgotten are a sampling of prize-winning papers presented in recent years.
In addition to the Rounds, students have had the opportunity to participate in History of Medicine Days in Calgary and have continuously come away from the event among the top prize-winning medical school representatives. They also engage with leading scholars who provide annual lectures of medical historical interest. 

When the pandemic struck, McKellar sought to make connections for medical students by comparing it to past historical disease outbreaks, with similar physician challenges, and how society navigated uncertainty at those times and how society navigated uncertainty at those times.

She was able to share the realities of this in the spring of 2020, when teaching Pandemics in Recent History to third-year medical students. And this fall, she presented a module called A Role for History? COVID-19 and Influenza Pandemics to first-year medical students.

“I think many students were surprised to learn that non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, took place during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic with similar societal debates"

McKellar has brought the School’s own history alive through the History of Medicine Walking Tour and medical artifacts displays, with points of interest in cabinets, and identified in hallways, corners and classrooms in the Medical and Dental Sciences Buildings and the Health Sciences Addition.
With an insatiable curiosity, McKellar continually asks questions about medical objects. Her newest venture is the book Cutting as Cure: Objects and Stories in the History of Surgery that is an object-centred study. It explores 19th century surgical instruments and how instruments and the act of cutting have shaped our current-day approach to disease.  
“I’m focusing on instruments and intentions, and my questions are: What is the relationship between surgical instruments, knowledge and practice? What role do surgical instruments play in how and why a physician cuts?” she said.
McKellar explained that it was during the 19th century that the range and number of surgical procedures increased significantly and that surgeons started to make inroads on three issues that impeded successful surgical outcomes: pain, bleeding and infection.
The pandemic put a dent in McKellar’s writing schedule for her book. Due to travel restrictions, her plans to visit museum collections across the United States and the United Kingdom were put on hold.
She has taken time, however, to consider and explore the issues of uncertainty in medicine and the adaptability of medical practitioners – two themes ever present during the past 14 months. She’s foregrounding these themes in examining the introduction or modification of 19th century surgical procedures in addressing contemporary patients needs and issues. And she’s spent some time testing these out in a series of virtual talks and presentations.
She looks forward to the day when she can once again wander through the National Museum of American History and be able to get up close and personal with the surgical instruments of past centuries.

Daring to Ask is a series that profiles Canada Research Chairs and Endowed Research Chairs at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. These researchers are advancing knowledge in their respective fields, asking and answering questions that challenge the status quo and seeking to improve patient care. It is essential research made possible by generous donors and the investment of funding agencies.