HHH autumn meeting 2023: Farewell symposium for Prof. Frank Huisman

This year, our September meeting coincided with the address by Prof. Frank Huisman, chair of the HHH board and professor in the history of medicine at UMC Utrecht, in occasion of his retirement. On Friday September 8, HHH members, along with colleagues, students, and family of Frank, gathered in the beautiful Leeuwenbergh church in Utrecht for his farewell symposium on the theme: “Het verleden informeert de toekomst”, “The past informs the future”. We would like to thank those of you who joined us on this special day. For those who could not attend, there is a full recording of the event below.

Het verleden informeert de toekomst: hoe kunnen we een volgende gezondheidscrisis voorkomen?

To watch the symposium, please click on this link: https://vimeo.com/862335305?share=copy



Dr Roland Bertens, lecturer at the UMC Utrecht and chair of the symposium, kicked off the meeting with an introduction to the programme.


Dr Seye Abimbola, associate professor in health systems at the University of Sydney, gave the first lecture of the day. Seye’s lecture was titled ‘Why is health global? Or… why we can’t afford to think about health only nationally, but also globally’. Seye explained how health is always determined by factors beyond the local and national level, from international structures of power established in colonial times, to the actions of NGOs.


Prof.dr Rina Knoeff, professor in health and humanities at Groningen University, gave the second lecture, entitled ‘De rokende mestvaalt. Lichaam en omgevingsfactoren in vroegmoderne koortsen’ (‘The smoking dunghill. Body and environmental factors in early modern fevers’). Rina argued that understandings of epidemics in the early modern period were not limited to the mechanics of disease spread, as they often are now, but included environmental factors that interacted with the body in complex ways.


Next, Dr Floor Haalboom, assistant professor in the history of medicine at Erasmus MC, talked about ‘Gezondheid en economie in het Antropoceen’ (‘Health and economics in the Anthropocene’). Taking the case study of animal feed augmented with antibiotics, Floor showed how the animal feed industry pushed for the legalisation of this kind of feed, ignoring health warnings and willfully going against the interests of farmers and consumers.


The fourth lecture was given by Prof.dr Henk te Velde, professor of Dutch history at Leiden University. In his talk, ‘Over het politieke gebrek aan tijd en de wetenschap’ (‘On the political lack of time and science’), he argued that in a liberal democracy, it takes time to reach consensus and create a support base. As a result, big societal challenges – like pandemics – tend to be dealt with too late.



In the following intervention, Dr Anja Schreijer, director of the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Center, introduced the role of this task force, which aims to reduce vulnerabilities and prevent future disasters through an union of the technical, medical and social sciences.


Q&A with the previous speakers.


The chairman of the Historia Medicinae foundation, Peter de Leeuw, awarded medical historian and HHH member Catharina Th. Bakker the eighth Gerrit Arie Lindeboom Prize for her book The lijfarts van de koning (‘The king’s personal physician’). Read more about Catharina’s book here.


It was then the turn for Prof.dr Frank Huisman’s lecture: ‘Van Thorbecke tot zorginfarct: pleidooi voor health literacy, burgerschap en een actieve staat’ (‘From Thorbecke to healthcare heart attack: a plea for health literacy, citizenship and an active state’). Frank began his lecture by showing how the Dutch healthcare is understood to be in crisis, at risk of a deadly ‘heart attack’. How did we get to this point? To answer this question, Frank went all the way back to the beginnings of the Dutch state and to the initial aims of the healthcare system. He then traced how the system changed over the years and gave some recommendations on how to improve the fragile state of healthcare today.


The symposium ended with short addresses by Prof.dr Kaat de Wils, professor in cultural history at Leuven University, and by Prof.dr Arno Hoes, professor in clinical epidemiology and Dean of the UMC Utrecht. Both recounted parts of Frank’s career as a distinguished historian of medicine.

After the official programme of the symposium, participants stayed for drinks and snacks, while Frank’s family showed their musical talent with their own songs dedicated to Frank. The afternoon was rich in academic learning as well as in emotion. We wish Frank all the best for his retirement.