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World's Oldest Medical Journal Celebrates Birthday

Ernie Shannon's picture
New England Journal of Medicine Plaque

The venerable medical publication, New England Journal of Medicine, is celebrating its 200th anniversary this week.

In January 1812, George Washington had been dead only a decade and James Madison lived in the White House in a year that would see another war from Great Britain in which much of Washington, D.C. would be burned. In the midst of that important year, the first issue of the New England Journal of Medicine rolled off the handset letterpress with stories such as John C. Warren’s “Cases of Organic Diseases of the Heart and Lungs.” Warren was a well-known Boston surgeon, who along with his colleague James Jackson and others, started what was then called the New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery and the Collateral Branches of Science and hoped for modest growth of the publication around the Boston area. Today, the Journal has the distinction of being the longest continually published medical publication in the world.

The New England journal’s entry into the world of medicine at that time meant that the publication had to steer a middle-of-the-ground viewpoint on many medical practices of the day. Treatment of disease was controversial in the early 1800s since little was known about the origins of viruses and infections. What’s more, medical discussions were often heated as old practices were cast aside for new proedures. At the time, the editors said:

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“The editors have been encouraged to attempt this publication by the opinion that a taste for medical literature has greatly increased in New England within a few years past. New methods of practice, god old ones which are not sufficiently known, and occasional investigations of the mods in common use, when thus distributed among out medical brethren in the country, will promote a disposition for inquiry and reflection, which cannot fail to produce the most happy results.”

By virtue of a history that mirrors the length and breadth of the United States itself, the Journal has covered virtually every aspect of medical science and its evolution. Researchers, scientists, and medical entrepreneurs of every stripe have portrayed their advancements within the Journal’s pages. As the editors said in 1837:

“It has been a point of ambition with us . . . to make these pages the vehicle of useful intelligence, rather than the field of warfare. . . . The Journal is to all intents and purposes, designed to be a record of medical and surgical facts. It is the medium through which the profession may interchange sentiments and publish the results of their experience”