Old pharmacy medical museum

Experiments, bodies, and ethics from the 19th century to the present

Module details

  • Offered to 1st years
  • Tuesdays 16.00-18.00
  • 8 weeks (spring term only)
  • Online
  • Non-credit only
How to enrol

We know that modern medicine relies upon experiment, but how much do we really know about what that experiment has entailed? This module explores the place of the human body in a variety of investigations from the nineteenth century to the present. Looking at episodes such as the Tuskegee syphilis study and Cold War radiation experiments, we will consider how ideas about the place of the human body in medicine and science have developed in the modern era. We will explore how factors such as race, class, and gender have determined whose bodies have been considered ‘acceptable’ subjects for experiment, the role of states and the military in medical research, and consider how past events might inform current medical practices.

Please note:
The planned delivery mode for this module is as indicated in the 'Module details' box, however, it is possible that this may need to be changed in response to changing circumstances. For more information please see 'Imperial Horizons 2021-22' on the Horizons homepage.

Information blocks

Learning outcomes

Aged diagram of human anatomyAt the end of the module you will be able to:

  • Explain the changing historical place of the human body in scientific and medical investigation
  • Discuss the social, economic, and political factors that contribute to attitudes towards that investigation;
  • Construct arguments drawing upon historical events to discuss current issues in medicine and science;
  • Synthesize and evaluate a range of historical sources, both independently and in group work, to inform and construct arguments and contribute to seminars and written work;
  • Debate the place of the human body in science and medicine confidently and sensitively during seminar discussions;
  • Organize and independently carry out research, demonstrated through a written essay.
  • Present individual and group work to fellow students and the module leader.

Indicative core content


  • Understanding the history of the body in medicine, including an exploration of key historiography and thinking about how historians and others have tackled the history of human experimentation;
  • Dissection in the 19th century: the introduction of the 1832 Anatomy Act and why it provoked controversy, including a look at notorious body-snatchers Burke and Hare;
  • The Victorian anti-vaccination movement: the introduction of compulsory vaccination against smallpox in 1853, and popular reactions to such state intervention in health - from street protests to satire;
  • War and surgery: the new medical interventions necessitated by WWI and WWII, changing attitudes towards disfigurement, and the development of cosmetic surgery;
  • Race and experiment: the post-war landscape after the introduction of the Nuremberg Code, the Tuskegee 'syphilis study' and medical experimentation in prisons;
  • Biological and chemical warfare: the experiments at Porton Down and how military medicine may complicate ideas about informed consent, including the recruitment of experimental subjects;
  • Radiation: the work of the Atomic Energy Commission and human radiation experiments during the Cold War - sometimes including covert experimentation on the civilian population;
  • Displaying the body: exploring the ethical questions surrounding popular displays such as Body Worlds, and the repatriation of human remains.


  • Coursework: 5 x in-class writing tasks (total 20%)
  • Coursework: Essay of 1500 words (80%)

Key information

  • ECTS value: 0
  • Requirements: You must be prepared to attend all classes and to spend about an hour a week preparing for each session
  • This module is designed as an undergraduate Level 4 course. See Imperial Horizons level descriptors [pdf]
"I found the content of this course very good indeed! It provided a great overview of the different aspects of medicine and the key developments that took place throughout the history and shaped the medical field to make it become what it is today"
"The assignment represented a good opportunity to do some more individual research on a particular topic which reinforced the information given by our lecturer. ... I liked the idea of giving us a pre-reading task, as it gave me an idea of the topic to be discussed next and hence allowed to understand the concepts better the next day during the session"
"Was really fascinating and well taught. Very enjoyable and interesting course."
"The module is a real surprise for me as our instructor Jennifer made the history of modern medicine fun and engaging. I would definitely recommend this module to others because of the wonderful instructor!"
"The lecturer was lively and humorous. Made Tuesday afternoons a joy to look forward to. It's a fascinating module."
"I really enjoyed horizons this term, the content was interesting. I hope that there is another History-based Horizons next year because I would definitely sign up."