Detail of The Dinner Table by Henri Matisse (1896/7)

At a celestial dinner party attended by the ancient Chinese sage Confucius, the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, the American novelist Mark Twain, the Spanish philosopher George Santayana and the Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde, the conversation—assuming language is no barrier in heaven—may turn to history.  In particular, over the port, the study of history, its purpose and its worth would be mulled over.  For all these men had something profound to say about this subject and their words are as relevant today as when they were written, and especially so when we consider the history of discovery.

We may ponder what lessons we can learn from the history of clinical research. This, of course, presumes that there are indeed lessons to be learned from the study of any history.  Confucius certainly thinks so when he says, ‘Study the past if you would define the future.’ Perhaps we might go further than that and posit that with a study of history we will not only define the future, but we might also begin to understand the present.   Santayana agrees with Confucius.  He not only values the study of history, he feels that failing to pay attention to it will have dire consequences.  ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ he would say.  Perhaps Twain would intercede here in the conversation by agreeing that men do not necessarily learn from history, but while he declaims the actual repetition of history he does allude to the recidivism of its players, when he jokes, ‘The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.’  It is hard to imagine Hegel, an altogether more sober character, laughing at that and he might bring the conversation to an abrupt close by pronouncing, ‘The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

I do not agree with Hegel, but I’m not sure I would say so to his face. It is, however, difficult to disagree with Twain.  We do not always learn from history and we are sometimes condemned to relive our past mistakes.  But, surely not inevitably so.

The study of history is about our need to remember the events of the past—partly to understand our present, and partly to ensure that we are forewarned of the future—a future that will ‘rhyme’ with the past unless we pay attention to what has gone before.  When I teach classes on Good Clinical Practice and Research Methods in Clinical Trials I always begin with a short history lesson.  This may be seen merely as a scene setter; a way of easing into the day and a moisturizer for a rather dry subject.  But, that is not why it is included.  I firmly believe that unless we think about the past, analyse it and learn from it, we have little chance of really understanding what is happening now.

And what of Oscar Wilde?  He is sitting uncharacteristically quietly at our dinner party.  His contribution to the discussion I like to think of as the last word on the matter, especially considering a blog such as this that purports to examine history and put it into a modern perspective.  ‘[A]ny fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it.’  If wishing made it so, Oscar.

© Allan Gaw 2013

If you would like to read more about the history of clinical trials or of research ethics take a look at the two books below—both available as kindle downloads from amazon or in hard copy from my website

My books available on kindle:

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