Learning from medicine in the past

“There are often lessons we can learn about how to do medicine better now when studying what has happened in the past,” says Consultant Dermatologist Nick Levell, whose latest historical research is into the skin maladies of British royalty and aristocracy.

Prof Levell’s most recent historical research with US clinicians in an American journal details the heroics of Winston Churchill who donated a skin graft from his arm to help a badly wounded fellow officer during the 1898 Battle of Omdurman in the Anglo Sudan War.

The medical journal describes Churchill’s courage in donating a skin graft, which was taken from him without anaesthetic and before the era of antibiotics, as well as discussing altruism and technical aspects of the skin graft to treat serious wounds and burns.

Prof Levell, who is specialty lead for the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) in dermatology, is responsible for around 60 research projects in over 230 UK institutions to help treat serious skin diseases. He is also Vice-President of the European Society for the History of Dermatovenereology.

“I have been publishing historical medical research for over 25 years in collaboration with colleagues in the UK and overseas. History is less than 5% of my research time and is mainly done in my own time. My American colleagues have told me that there is a fascination by doctors and the public in America with British royalty and the aristocracy, so this makes readers more likely to look at the research and reflect on the lessons we are trying to share.”

“When doing historical research, it is best to try to use documents such as eyewitness accounts, ideally supported by other independent accounts, so famous and important figures are likely to produce more valid and accurate facts,” he said.

Prof Levell is interested in research on skin cancer and is a local lead on studies looking at psoriasis treatments and genetics and the genetic basis for reactions to medications.  He is also involved in the national Getting It Right First Time (GIRFT) programme giving a blueprint of how to improve care for people with skin disease across England.

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