HHH column: ‘Faith, medicine and religion’ by Joris Vandendriessche

The HHH column is a blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts: on research, current affairs, and anything to do with medical history. Each author will invite a new author to participate in the conversation. Last time, HHH chairman Frank Huisman, passed the column on to Joris Vandendriessche, post-doc researcher at KU Leuven.

Joris Vandendriessche

Leuven, late 1950s. A priest wearing a black cassock passes by a pay phone, used by a nursing student who is having a seemingly relaxed conversation. He glances at her sideways. In the background, the St. Elisabeth School for Nursing solemnly appears. The school had been founded in  1921. In the 1930s, it moved to this building, which was erected by the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. The school was part of the new medical campus of the Catholic University of Leuven established in interwar years in Leuven’s city center. 

University Archive of Leuven. Photograph taken by Robert Martin, 1958

The photograph of the priest and the nurse was part of a series made by Robert Martin for a festive album in 1958 for ‘friends’ of the university. It captured the modern marriage of medicine and Catholicism. It was a typical photo for an album that contained images of state-of-the-art laboratories and clinics, but also of bishops, masses and sisters religious. The first illustration of the book was a portrait of a praying pope Pius XII. Surely, in the 1950s, the Catholic University of Leuven was developing its research activities, not in the least by setting up clinical laboratories for new specialties. But it was also a profoundly and proudly Catholic institution.

Over the past few years, the strong and continued influence of religion in medical care has been one of the most surprising elements in my research on the twentieth-century history of the Leuven academic hospitals. I paid considerable attention to it in my book Zorg en wetenschap (Leuven University Press, 2019). Currently, I am engaging in comparative research on Catholic hospitals with American colleagues within a wider research network on the complex relation between medicine and Catholicism since the 19th century. Why did Catholic hospitals in the USA not allow new medical treatments such as IVF while Belgian Catholic hospitals – after ethical debates – did start to offer them? Against the backdrop of a shifting relation between the medical and religious domains, Catholic hospitals’ policies and therapeutic practices clearly followed a different path in both countries.       

The history of Catholic hospitals is part of a wider field of research treating the complex relation between medicine and religion. Historical analyses reveal that medical views were rarely strictly ‘opposed’ to religious views of the (un)healthy body. To the contrary, historians show how faith inspired healing practices such as ‘moral therapy’ and shaped patients’ experiences of illness. They have equally uncovered how religious ideas structured the professional identity of caregivers.

Later this year – from 7 to 10 September 2021 – our research group Cultural History since 1750 at the University of Leuven will host an online conference on “Faith, Medicine and Religion”, together with the European Association for the History of Medicine and Health. Proposals for individual papers, panel sessions and round tables are welcome until 30 January 2021. For more information, visit the conference website.

Joris Vandendriessche is a postdoctoral researcher (FWO) at the Cultural History since 1750 Research Group at the University of Leuven. His research engages with the history of scholarly societies, scientific publishing and medical care in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is author of Medical societies and scientific culture in nineteenth-century Belgium (Manchester University Press, 2018) and Zorg en wetenschap. Een geschiedenis van de Leuvense academische ziekenhuizen in de twintigste eeuw (Leuven University Press, 2019). He is also a member of the Flemish Young Academy and board member of Gewina.

Joris passes the pen on to Mieneke te Hennepe, curator at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leyden.