My Favorite Medical History Podcasts

In addition to an extensive list of memoirs, biographies, and research texts on medical history that I have read for background research on Sugar Communion, I have also spent a lot of time walking the dog and listening to podcasts. Here’s a photo of Wile E. and me, just because:

Heading out to the trail and hoping we’re the only ones on it. Listening to medical podcasts during COVID is on-point.

My heroine, Dr. Elizabeth “Liddy” Shepherd, M.D., is one of many young women who became physicians or surgeons at the turn of the twentieth century. In romance novels, the introduction of a female doctor character is often presented as something truly exceptional: “the only female physician in England,” one says! While it is true that the best female physicians of the United Kingdom were in Scotland, not England, this kind of blurb is bad history. (Is it good marketing? I don’t know.)

Check out my Pinterest pages for all my inspirations and visual research. Liddy will grow up in a medical family: her father and two brothers are both physicians of the eclectic school and operate a hydrotherapy sanitarium (think Kellogg’s Battle Creek sanitarium for more frugal customers). She will go against her family’s wishes—not in becoming a doctor but in studying the new microbiological, laboratory-based field, which they regarded as a threat.

It was not an easy career to choose for a woman, to be sure, but doors were not as closed to them as people today tend to think. Modern medicine and medical education was born at the turn of the twentieth century, meaning that doctors went from being considered “butchers” and “charlatans” (though, let’s face it, they were bleeders) to people who could actually diagnose what was wrong with you and, eventually, help you. (Though before antibiotics, odds on recovery were still not great, unfortunately.) It is this improvement in status of doctors that led conservative elements of American society to decide that medicine was not an appropriate career for women, often because a woman doctor would be “taking the good job of a man.” The publication of the Flexner Report in 1910 is credited with creating the modern scientific medical school system in the US, but it also directly or indirectly caused the closure of many medical schools for women (and African Americans). Those that had been coeducational reduced their admission of women, partly because they had a rise in male applicants. One study calls an unintended consequence of Flexner’s report the “the near elimination of women in the physician workforce between 1910 and 1970.”

(Side note: Johns Hopkins, the model of a modern medical school for Mr. Flexner, only managed to operate because of the patronage of four women: Martha Carey Thomas, Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Elizabeth King, and Mary Gwinn. According to Johns Hopkins: “They would raise the $500,000 needed to open the school and pay for a medical school building, but only if the school would open its doors to qualified women. Reluctantly, the men agreed.” Unfortunately, the legendary founder of internal medicine at Hopkins, Dr. William Osler, was less enthusiastic about the role of women in the field, and the numbers of female students would dwindle before growing again decades later.)

Women in medicine is really the subject for another post, which I plan to do. But importantly I write historical fiction and romance, so my character Liddy needs to be a good doctor appropriate to her time period. I had to understand the world of medicine she was a part of. Better than studying it, I had to immerse myself in it. For that task, I did use some good books, but mostly I listened to podcasts. Let’s talk about a few of those:


Bedside Rounds

My favorite serious medical history podcast was Bedside Rounds, hosted by Adam Rodman, M.D. Every one of these episodes are very engaging and informative. How accurate are they? Well, members of the American College of Physicians can earn Continuing Medical Education (CME) and Maintenance of Certification (MOC) credit for just listening to these episodes and taking a quick quiz! But, trust me, we general listeners need not worry about the test. You’re definitely not going to get bored, either. Dr. Rodman’s intention was to model his podcast on Radio Lab, and he succeeded. His delivery of information is that compelling and digestible (health-related pun?). There were times when I did backtrack 15 seconds or so just to let some point wash over me a second time, but keep in mind that I was taking mental notes for my book. A casual listener can easily stay on pace. Dr. Rodman explains all his medical terms for us laymen, but at the same time he doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. His presentations are well-scripted and do have lighter moments but never get silly. The Radio Lab comparison is dead on. I have listened to all 57 episodes (well, okay, 56 really because he revised and re-released one, and I only bothered with the newer version), and I will say that the whole series is fascinating. This library of information changes the way you view medicine. Frankly, it makes you realize how young the field really is. (Note: The COVID-related episodes, including an in-depth treatment of previous coronaviruses and the 1918 flu, are very good.)

This podcast will kill you

This Podcast Will Kill You is a close runner-up. Two immediate advantages of this podcast are (1) the female presenter duo, Erin Welsh, Ph.D. (ecology) and Erin Allmann Updyk, Ph.D. (epidemiology), and (2) their structure of dividing each episode into biology, history, and modern issues. They also have a Quarantini (or non-alcoholic Placeborita) drink recipe for each episode—and this was before we were all quarantining. “The Erins” (their label not mine) deal with some diseases that other podcasts do not cover, for example rinderpest, which will have to be another glossary post on this blog because it comes up a few times in my books. (It’s the bovine form of measles, to be overly reductive.) I think the only thing that gave Bedside Rounds the edge for me—and this is a personal preference—is that I don’t like much conversation in my podcasts. Or, at least, I think natural-sounding conversation is hard to pull off. It tends to sound really stilted to me, and I think some of the pauses the Erins put in for effect make me a little uncomfortable. This is definitely an its-not-you-its-me issue, and honestly I am probably being too sensitive. (Note: I have not gotten to the COVID episodes yet, but the Erins have several, all broken down by different facets of the pandemic.)

the history of medicine

I have only listened to the first half of the first season of The History of Medicine podcast, but what I like about it is the deep dive into a narrative history of one big medical invention at a time. The first season is all about antibiotics, and there is no show that develops the history of penicillin‘s discovery better, in my opinion. Also the show on plague (Yersinia pestis) is excellent background for all history teachers. A final advantage is that each episode here is very short. A disadvantage is that host and producer Kirby Gong is not a practicing physician. He only (ha!) has a master’s degree in biomedical engineering—though I might call his viewpoint an advantage because he investigates medical inventions in a more procedural way. This is the lens of an engineer, and I find that very interesting.

this won’t hurt a bit

This Won’t Hurt a Bit is my new obsession, but I am bound to be disappointed soon because I am running out of episodes. The two ER physicians who are the main hosts here, Dr. Mel Herbert and Dr. Jess Mason, are so busy with saving lives and producing other educational modules for ER docs that they are not actively creating many new releases. (Note: They do have a few COVID episodes that I have not gotten to yet.) Every episode they have made is terrific. Though they are not exclusively focused on history, each podcast touches upon the historical approach to a disease or treatment in some way. They also teach you a lot about being a good patient, including when you might want to go to a hospital yourself! Dave Mason, Jess’s non-MD husband, is also one of the hosts, and he provides banter and asks the questions you really wanted to know. What I appreciate about Dave, though, is that he is not entirely silly, and he does not derail Mel and Jess when they are delivering information. This podcast is very well produced and engineered, with additional asides and definitions that you appreciate not dread. I am going to be really sorry when I run out of these.


Sawbones is probably the most popular podcast of all the above, at least by the size of the live audiences that they have performed in front of (pre-quarantine days). This podcast is billed as a “A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine,” and that is because the show is based around the relationship of the medical host, Dr. Sydnee McElroy, and the comic relief, her husband Justin McElroy. I get why this formula works, and most people really love their rapport. Unfortunately, I get frustrated when Justin interrupts Sydnee for a sophomoric joke. Again, this may be my issue not yours. Most of the background medical history research is done by Sydnee—maybe I’m underestimating Justin?—and she always brings her A-game. She’s also living and practicing in Huntington, W.V., which is where my grandparents and aunt lived (and therefore I spent a lot of time growing up), and I feel connected to the McElroys that way too. They have several COVID episodes that I have not listened to yet, and they have also done an important set of podcasts on the history of medical racism inspired by recent protests.

stuff you missed in history class

For a history podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class touches on medical topics a lot. There is even a good episode on the Flexner report, mentioned above. I think this is because the hosts, Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson, show a real concern for the daily lives of past people. One of their other stand-out episodes for me was on the “Orphan Trains,” which is a footnote of history you will also see in Sugar Communion. There is a deep backlog here that I plan to dive into once I’m finished with some of my medical questions.

the others

There are more podcasts that I have not yet gotten around to, like the Curious Clinicians, the History Chicks, the Revisionist History podcast, Blowback, and This Land. (Some of these titles are related to other interests, obviously.) There are other podcasts in my favorites that I listen only to a few episodes of, like Casenotes. (Nope, not the true crime podcast, but the medical history one. It is a fortnightly podcast from the Physicians’ Gallery at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh. Essentially it is just the audio of lectures given by doctors and epidemiologists for other highly-degreed people. It can be very good, depending on the speaker, but it is like listening to a conference, not a highly-produced podcast.) You may have also noticed Book Thingo on my Stitcher account because it’s the best romance podcast out there, and I’m not just saying that because they were willing to talk to me. Kat Mayo is also the originator of the #UndressAndres hashtag, so I owe her a lot.

If you know of more stuff I should be listening to—especially anything relevant to Sugar Communion—please let me know. My dog always needs walking.