Dr. Dana Atchley interviewing a patient, 1958.  Photo by Elizabeth Wilcox

Dr. Dana Atchley interviewing a patient, 1958.  Photo by Elizabeth Wilcox


Nuisance or Necessity? Historical Perspectives on the ‘Informed’ Patient

Nancy Tomes, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor of History, Stony Brook University, New York

Thursday, March 9

Refreshments, 5:30, Lecture, 6pm

Conference Room 103-A, Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library, Hammer Building

701 West 168th St. at Fort Washington Ave.

Sponsored by the Columbia University Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library


Today it is an article of faith in American health care that patients need to be more actively engaged in their own treatment.   That engagement begins with information: as a nation, we place great emphasis on people’s responsibility to find and act on the best available data about many complex issues, from the choice of insurance plans to the selection of doctors, hospitals, and treatments.  Yet beneath the surface, there remains considerable tension over the role that “informed” patients should and do play in medical decision making.   That tension is often associated with the arrival of the Internet, which has made it far easier for patients to get information about health care options. 

But as this talk by historian Nancy Tomes will show, the fundamental issues involved in today’s debates over how patients use the Internet are by no means new.   Drawing on her latest book, Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers (University of North Carolina Press, 2016), Tomes will put the current debates over the value of “medical Googlers” in historical perspective.  She will explore the long term factors that have generated those debates and conclude with some reflections on what history can teach us about the present and future prospects for patient engagement.   


Nancy Tomes teaches US cultural and social history, the history of medicine, and women’s history at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook NY, where she is a Distinguished Professor.  Her research interests have ranged widely over the past four decades, but almost all focus on the intersection between expert knowledge and popular understandings of the body and disease.

A profilic author, her books include A Generous Confidence: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Art of Asylum Keeping (1984); Madness in America: Cultural and Medical Perceptions of Mental Illness Before 1914 (with Lynn Gamwell, 1995); The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life (1998); and Remaking the American Patient: How Madison Avenue and Modern Medicine Turned Patients into Consumers (2016), among other works. 

Prof. Tomes has created a website, Medicine and Madison Avenue, on the history of health-related advertising, developed in collaboration with Duke University Library’s Special Collections.

She is currently doing research on history of psychiatry while also pursuing many unfinished threads from Remaking the American Patient, including the impact of the Internet on doctor-patient interactions, and a comparative look at medical consumerism in other countries.