Teaching with Oral History

There are several ways in which oral history can be used in the undergraduate and graduate classroom. Two particularly productive ways of integrating oral histories into the teaching of history are to use oral histories as a supplement to lectures and assigned reading of secondary literature, and to have students conduct and/or analyze oral histories as a graded assignment. The following discussion includes suggestions for using the oral histories on this website in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the history of health care, medicine, and science, and in women’s history.


Oral History as a Teaching Source

Assigning oral history transcripts as class reading or using audio excerpts of oral histories in classroom lectures will:

– humanize, bring to life, and make real the history portrayed in the secondary literature and lectures by hearing people describe that history as they experienced it.
– provide students with the opportunity to explore the many sides of a historical issue or event through first-hand accounts.
– give voice to individuals and groups (such as minorities, technicians, laboratory assistants, and “rank-and-file” scientists, researchers, and health care professionals) not otherwise depicted in the secondary literature.
– enable students to assess and compare the ways in which an individual’s experience of a given historical issue or event may correlate, enhance, challenge, or conflict with historians’ interpretations of that history.

In addition to the oral histories available on the AHC Oral History Project website, there are several books, articles, and online resources that include oral history interviews related to the history of science and health care that can be used to supplement and enhance the secondary literature. These include but are by no means limited to:

– Ronald Bayer and Gerald M. Oppenheimer, AIDS Doctors: Voices from the Epidemic (Oxford University Press, 2000).

– Regina Markell Morants, Cynthia Stodola Pomerleau, and Carol Hansen Fenichel (editors), In Her Own Words: Oral Histories of Women Physicians (Greenwood Press, 1992).

– Gerald M. Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer, Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic (Oxford University Press, 2007).

– Julie K. Silver and Daniel J. Wilson, Polio Voices: An Oral History from the American Polio Epidemics and Worldwide Eradication Efforts (Greenwood Press, 2007).

– Margaret Charles Smith and Linda Janet Holmes, Listen to Me Good: The Life Story of an Alabama Midwife (Ohio State University Press, 1996).

– The African American Health Care Project: Documenting the Historical Experiences of African Americans in Southeastern Michigan http://www.med.umich.edu/haahc/

– National Library of Medicine Oral History Collections http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/manuscripts/orallist.html. Includes interviews with physicians, scientists, government administrators, medical librarians, and health-business executives from the 1960s to the present.

– The Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley includes several oral history collections related to the history of science and health care: AIDS Epidemic in San Francisco; Bioscience and Biotechnology; Chemistry and Physics; Engineering; Kaiser Permanente; Medical Physics and Biophysics; Medicine and Public Health; Ophthalmology; Stem Cell Research http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/collections/subjectarea/

Oral History as Assignment

Analysis of Nurse’s Oral History Interview

Assign appropriate secondary literature in the history of nursing since World War II. Some examples include Patricia D’Antonio, American Nursing: A History of Knowledge, Authority, and the Meaning of Work (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); Julie Fairman, Making Room in the Clinic: Nurse Practitioners and the Evolution of Modern Health Care (Rutgers University Press, 2009); Julie Fairman and Joan Lynaugh, Critical Care Nursing: A History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Joan Lynaugh and Barbara Brush, American Nursing: From Hospitals to Health Systems (Blackwell Publishers, 1996); and Margaret Sandelowski, Devices and Desire: Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Duke University Press, 2000).

Select one of the oral history interviews conducted with nurses from the AHC Oral History Project website. Read the entire interview and analyze it in the context of the secondary reading. What was the nurse’s experience of nursing school like? Did she attend a hospital diploma program and/or a university baccalaureate program–how did the two experiences differ? What was it like working as a nurse? What were her responsibilities? What were her working relationships like with physicians, patients, other nurses, medical students, and medical technologies? Write a brief (3-4 page) paper in which you describe the nurse’s experience working as a nurse in the 1950s or 1960s, analyze her experience within the context of the time period, and connect it to the class readings and lectures.

Similar assignments could be constructed–in the context of appropriate secondary literature–on the history of post-World War II dentistry, medicine, pharmacy, public health, veterinary medicine, and the history of hospitals.

Childbirth Interview and Analysis

Assign appropriate secondary literature in the history of reproduction and childbirth. For example: Laura Kaplan, Jane: The Story of the Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service (University of Chicago Press, 1995); Wendy Kline, Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave (University of Chicago Press, 2010); Rebecca Kluchin, Fit to be Tied: Sterilization and Reproductive Rights in America, 1950-1980 (Rutgers University Press, 2009); Judith Walzer Leavitt, Making Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room (University of California Press, 2009); Leslie Reagan, When Abortion was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (University of California Press, 1997); and Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, On the Pill: A Social History of Oral Contraceptives, 1950-1970 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).

Interview a mother about her childbirth experience. Where did she give birth, what procedures were used, were there any complications, did she have a friend or a partner in the room with her, how did she feel about the experience? What was the impact of childbirth on her body and how long did recovery take? Write a brief (3-4 page) paper in which you give the woman’s story within the context of the time period in which she delivered her baby and connect to class readings of the same period.

Similar assignments could be constructed–in the context of appropriate secondary literature–on the experiences of patients, health care professionals, researchers, and policymakers related to specific health-related events, diseases, or changes in the health care system.