The Rise and Fall of the “Personal Equation” in American and British Medicine, 1855–1952

Rory Brinkmann, Andrew Turner, Scott Podolsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Originating within astronomy as a technical term in the first half of the 18th century, the term “personal equation” spread into a litany of other fields including medicine, where it was used widely and variously from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. We explore the personal equation in the medical literatures of the United States and Britain through a systematic analysis of over 700 articles in four prominent medical journals in conjunction with additional relevant source materials. After tracing the term’s dispersion from astronomy into medically allied fields, we examine its striking polysemy while using its rich usage as a lens to examine prevailing tensions within contemporary American and British medicine. Stretching from patient and clinician variability to observer variability and error, the personal equation’s various meanings reflect debates about the art and science of medical care that persist into the present day.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)41-71
Number of pages31
JournalPerspectives in Biology and Medicine
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 23 Apr 2019


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