The SMDS Listening List: History Podcasts



I’m going to put my cards on the table and say that, if the three history podcasts I’ve spotlighted here on SDMS were trapped in a burning building and I could only save one, it would be Sawbones. The youngest of the three podcasts (and another member of the Maximum Fun family of podcasts), Sawbones is also doing the most to make history not only accessible, but entertaining. I happen to really like the elevator pitch on their website, so I’m going to quote it here.

Dr. Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin welcome you to Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine. Every Friday, they dig through the annals of medical history to uncover all the odd, weird, wrong, dumb and just gross ways we’ve tried to fix people over the years. Educational? You bet! Fun? We hope!

Dr. and Mr. McElroy

Dr. and Mr. McElroy

Hope no longer, Dr. and Mr. McElroy! You certainly don’t need me to tell you you’ve succeeded (you have tens of thousands of listeners, after all) but I’m doing it anyway! This podcast does what so many fancy pants historians can’t: it uses humor to launch meaningful conversations about issues including, but not limited to, social justice, medical ethics, and consent.

While I’m certainly not the first person to sing the praises of this podcast, I can’t imagine that most of the folks reviewing the show are actual medical historians (well… ABD, but who’s counting). While some people might consider my scholarship peripheral to the field—a discussion for another day—the fact remains that several episodes of this show have focused on subjects about which I know a great deal. Not only were those episodes accurate, they were hilarious.

There is one exception here, and I was quick to call Dr. and Mr. McElroy out on it via the magical Twitter machine. The episode on “leprosy” was very accurate, but insufficient attention was given to the wishes of the patient community, which has been working for over half a century to try and eradicate the use of the words “leprosy” and “leper.” The correct terminology for the condition in question is Hansen’s disease (HD for short). While I understand why it might be necessary to use the “L word” in the episode title (like I just did in this aside), I felt like the McElroys missed a wonderful opportunity to advance the wishes of people with HD around the globe. Now, I’ve written a good bit on Hansen’s Disease activism, so it may be that my response to this episode was conditioned in part by an affection for the historical subjects in question, but I don’t think that invalidates the criticism.

That misstep aside, this show has consistently impressed me. Unlike a great many medical historians, the McElroys don’t treat doctors as superhuman, and DO treat patients as human. The result is a far richer story, and comedy that doesn’t reproduce the exploitation it chronicles. It’s also worth noting that, despite the fact that Dr. Sydnee McElroy was educated in the West and practices Western medicine, I don’t get the sense that she throws any shade on Eastern and indigenous medicinal traditions. It’s clearly not her bag, but she’s also devoting a tremendous amount of her time to demonstrating the ways in which Western medicine’s gotten it wrong. So there you go.

Long story short: neither of the hosts have any kind of advanced training in history, but they’re putting plenty of people who do to shame.

I want to close this review by saying that I fully intend on assigning some episodes of Sawbones in my classes. By pairing it alongside more “traditional” history texts, I think this podcast can help convince young people—young people who’ve been thoroughly steeped in anti-humanities rhetoric—that not only is history a lot of fun, it’s a field with the potential  for growth. We are not all a bunch of fogeys rolling around in the dust of ages. Some of us are actually pretty cool, and, you know… use the Internets. Thank you, Justin and Sydnee, for being my weekly reminder that I have an awesome job.

PS: Sydnee… if you’ve had your baby, a thousand congratulations! If you’re still counting the days, hang in there sister. You got this.

The SMDS Listening List: History Podcasts


The Memory Palace

Most episodes of The Memory Palace are ten minutes or less, but packed within that tiny space is poignant prose that often leaves me shaking my head in admiration.

Nate DiMeo, the show’s host and writer, is phenomenal. His work is all the reminder one needs that history can be not just fun, not just accessible, but freakin’ lyrical. Between his NPR voice (he’s done appearances on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace) and his gift for writing, DiMeo is storytelling incarnate.

Nate DiMeo looks literally nothing like the way  imagined him. Great putting a face to the voice!

Nate DiMeo looks literally nothing like the way imagined him. Great putting a face to the voice!

The vast majority of episodes are based in the US at the turn of the 20th century. DiMeo is especially captivated by scientific innovation, and—just like a good professor—he so skillfully communicates his passion that listeners can’t help but share in his awe. Seriously, he did a podcast on the invention of the elevator (a topic that, on its face, I consider exceedingly boring) and did it in such a way that I found it riveting.

If you have children and are interested in democratizing history, I strongly suggest playing an episode of The Memory Palace at bedtime. Nate DiMeo is the kind of writer who can get kids hooked on history.

The biggest problem with The Memory Palace (which, by the way, is part of the Maximum Fun family of podcasts).[1]

is that episodes are incredibly addictive, incredibly short, and released infrequently at best. DiMeo does all his own research and writng, and that takes time. I binge listened to the show during the course of a day devoted to doing all manner of housework, and The Memory Palace managed to make even that, well, memorable. I wish I’d had the discipline to listen slowly, and will probably go back and re-listen to every episode soon.

It’s time to raise the profile of this podcast. Give it a listen, and tell your friends. Art this good demands an audience.

[1] The Memory Palace has since left Maximum Fun. It is currently hosted by Radiotopia, PRX’s podcasting network.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.