• Open Access

The medicine of the future: a history of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago, 1886 – 2011

By Dr Warwick Brunton , Published by the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, University of Otago , NZ , March 2011 , Paperback , 296 pages , ISBN 978-0-473-18254-0 , RRP NZ$75 .

Reviewed by Justin McNab and Stephen Leeder

Menzies Centre for Health Policy, School of Public Health, University of Sydney, New South Wales

Warwick Brunton's history of the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand, illustrates the conundrum of writing engaging history. On the one hand, careful research and meticulous attention to the facts are necessary for an accurate account, but on the other hand this can create a narrative burdened with detail. For staff and students of the department, both past and present, Brunton's history will hold great interest and a more general academic audience will recognise the depressing machinations of university life.

The first half of the book, from 1886 to the late 1950s, concerns the public health interests, research, health and community-based activities of the early chairs of the department, from the first chair, Frank Ogston, through Sydney Champtaloup, Charles Hercus to Cyril Dixon. It also describes the department's changing curricula, its evolving research agenda and its engagement with a developing local and national health bureaucracy. Amusing anecdotes provide light relief, including an account of the Scottish import Ogston's struggle in his first public address to unruly students. The early chapters include archival photographs from portraits of influential figures to a 1910 snap of waistcoat-clad medical students on a field trip to a sewerage outfall. Colour plates of early public health promotional and occupational safety material are intriguing and supplement the text as do grey boxes containing departmental examination questions.

The second half of the book continues the narrative to the present. The working lives of later departmental heads George Spears, Francis de Hamel, and David Skegg are outlined. Changing public health definitions and priorities arising from both international and national movements are explained, as are the influences of social transformations and health-specific reforms in New Zealand from the early1990s. From the mid twentieth century to the present is traced with the establishment of research units and their achievements, continuing community outreach and under- and post-graduate teaching activities described. As with the first half of the book, photographs, colour plates and departmental examination questions abound.

While this book reiterates many of the familiar public health interests of the past and current centuries, it provides an antipodean perspective and detail of local responses to wider societal and global transformations. Brunton's accessible jargon-free style makes the book easy to read and belies the hard and painstaking work that he invested in its composition.