Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Christmas 2022: Eternal Flame

Medical activists as agents of change

BMJ 2022; 379 doi: (Published 22 December 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;379:o3049
  1. Scott Podolsky, professor of global health and social medicine, Harvard Medical School, director, Center for the History of Medicine, Countway Medical Library,
  2. David Jones, A Bernard Ackerman professor of the culture of medicine, Harvard University
  1. Boston, Massachusetts
  1. Scott_Podolsky{at}, dsjones{at}

Scott Podolsky and David Jones discuss some of the many physicians who have been called to activism over the years—and how this has changed medicine and society

Even when physicians focus their work on the care of individual patients, they often see patterns behind the disease and suffering that prompt people to seek medical care. Diseases in humans reflect social, economic, political, and environmental conditions. Weary of managing this status quo, some physicians work to change the world around them.1 Still others work to change the healthcare system to make it more inclusive of physicians from diverse backgrounds or more accessible to previously marginalised communities around the world.

Their efforts have taken many forms, such as pioneering new types of care, conducting research to guide policy, or public advocacy and government service. Medical activists work at the interface of medicine and society, often recognising the two as inextricable, in their efforts to bring about change.

It’s not possible to know which physician did this first, and any effort to identify a few exemplars will inevitably neglect others worthy of recognition. Many accounts of physician activism begin with Rudolf Virchow, who certainly earned his fame as a pioneer.23 In February 1848 Virchow, a recent medical graduate from a Berlin medical school, was sent to accompany a Prussian official on an investigation of typhus in Upper Silesia (now Poland). He focused on government and church policies that had left the population mired in squalid poverty (profound racism, which he himself exhibited, presumably didn’t help). He demanded that the Prussian government grant Silesia “full and unrestricted democracy,” along with investments in roads, agriculture, and workers’ rights.

While Virchow didn’t remain in Silesia to implement such reforms, he did spend much of his life advocating in Germany for health and political …

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