In 1925, in the seventh volume of his journal Isis, George Sarton judged that calling a journal Janus – after the Roman god with two faces – was ‘tempting but unfortunate.’1 Tempting, because the name was a clear shorthand for ‘looking at once towards the past and towards the future’. Unfortunate, however, because a long list of Janus journals had seen the daylight, which generally did not live long. Indeed, yet another Janus journal had ceased to exist before Sarton had been able to publish its review, as he added dryly in a ‘R.I.P.’ footnote. The Janus I will write about here, however, was an exception. Sarton called it ‘our esteemed contemporary, the Dutch Janus.’2 This journal was founded in 1896, as the first international periodical devoted to the history of medicine. It was also the first journal in the field in the Netherlands, and its history was closely linked to that of Gewina and Studium. But in line with the short-lived fate of other Jani, the editors of this Janus felt the need to ‘resurrect’ it from the beginning.

Why did different generations of historians of medicine and science in the Netherlands join these cycles of resurrecting Janus? First, I will argue that the journal deserves more historiographical attention because of its meaning for leading (German-speaking) medical historians from its start in 1896, a context neglected by historians who have focused on the journal’s Dutch editors.3 The use of the Janus head metaphor was important in this regard, and I will look more closely into its popularity and meaning, and the succeeding ‘Janus Resurrected’ sections during the journal’s existence in the second part of the article. Lastly, I will discuss the reception of Janus – both journal and metaphor – in two fields that share a history in Janus, but tend to operate in isolation from each other: history of science and history of medicine.


During its lifetime from 1896 to 1989, Janus ‘was the oldest international journal in existence in the field.’4 Its history can be divided in two phases, the first characterized by a focus on medicine, the second by a broadened scope including science, pharmacy and technology – in line with a more general shift in dominance in the history of science and medicine.5 From 1896 to 1941, Janus appeared as a journal for medical history and medical geography under the subtitle Archives Internationales pour l’Histoire de la Médicine et la Géographie Médicale. In 1941, the German occupation authorities prohibited publication. In 1957, Janus was ‘resurrected’ in another shape: as a journal for the history of science, medicine, and technology (subtitled Revue Internationale de l’Histoire des Sciences, de la Médicine, de la Pharmacie et de la Technique). This existed until 1989. Although the journal was closely affiliated to and partly funded by the Dutch Society for the History of Medicine, Science and Mathematics from its founding in 1913 onwards, it was never turned into its official outlet, despite several proposals.6

In 1896, Janus was founded as a bimonthly international journal by a group of Dutch physicians: practicing physicians H.F.A. Peypers (1853–1904) and C.E. Daniëls (1839–1921), and two medical professors of the University of Amsterdam: B.J. Stokvis (1834–1902) and J.W.R. Tilanus (1823–1914). Stokvis was one of the pioneers of Dutch history of science: his opening article of Janus also opens this last volume of Studium.7 The journal was modelled after another Janus devoted to medical history: the German journal Janus: Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Literatur der Medizin which was published in Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) between 1846 and 1848, and in Gotha between 1851 and 1853.8 The 1896 Janus contained articles in German, French and English. The Dutch editors decided to use French rather than German for their editorials, as a more hegemonic language than German was – despite its ubiquity in science.9

Fig. 1: 

Logo of Janus, printed on its title page from 1896 to 1911.

Bert Theunissen has convincingly placed the founding of this first international journal on the history of medicine in the Netherlands in the context of Dutch cultural nationalism, which combined the seemingly opposing ideals of nationalism and internationalism.10 The journal had its home base in the Netherlands and its most active editors were Dutch. Simultaneously, Janus was written for an international audience, and edited by an international board with representatives from Western European countries, Russia, the USA and Japan. Moreover, the founders meant the internationalistic aims of the journal to add to the nationalist motives of scientific progress, and wanted to use history to support such progress. Janus’ prominent editor Stokvis, for example, opened the Dutch association for the advancement of science and medicine (Nederlandsch Natuur en Geneeskundig Congres) with a speech ‘Nationality and science’ on what characterized Dutch science by looking at its history.11

However, during this ‘unmistakable renaissance in the history of medicine’ of the late nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, Janus was supported by leading, professional and predominantly German-speaking historians of medicine – an aspect that Bert Theunissen overlooked because of his focus on the Dutch editors, their medical background and their cultural nationalism. The prominent medical historian Karl Sudhoff (1853–1938) served as a member of the Janus editorial board until his death, was regularly celebrated in the journal.12 Other famous German-speaking historians of medicine had a link to Janus too. In 1898, one year before his death, the Viennese professor in medical history Theodor Puschmann (1844–1899) functioned as a crucial financial backer, and brought Janus to the attention of an international audience via the Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift.13 Using history, Puschmann hoped to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities, and he posthumously provided Sudhoff with the money to establish a medical history institute in Leipzig in 1905. Similarly, German-speaking historians Max Neuburger (1868–1955, Vienna) and Julius Pagel (1851–1912, Berlin) joined the Janus editorial board, and contributed articles in its early years. They were propagators of medical history as cultural history. In their role as editors, Sudhoff, Pagel and Neuburger also contributed reviews to Janus.

Theunissen has emphasized how history functioned as ‘the handmaiden of science’ in Janus rather than as an end in itself during the first half of its existence, and implies that this is linked to the editors’ medical background and the context of Dutch cultural nationalism.14 However, leading historians of medicine of the time – physicians and historians – disagreed between historicist and more pragmatic approaches to the history of medicine.15 Indeed, Janus’ example, the German medical history journal Janus, was edited by prominent German medical historians of the time like August Henschel (1790–1856), Heinrich Haeser (1811–1885), Justus Hecker (1795–1850), Ludwig Choulant (1791–1861) and Julius Rosenbaum (1807–1874), and was pre-eminently an example of the ‘new historicist approach’ of mid-nineteenth century German medical history.16 To the annoyance of progressive German physicians, it focused on archival and philological articles, and had ‘no overt didactic or pragmatic goal’ – this Janus did not survive long as a result.17 But the Janus of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also harboured this perspective on history for its own sake. Janus editor Karl Sudhoff propagated historicism à la Leopold von Ranke’s ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’—despite Sudhoff’s own background in medical practice. In 1904, Julius Pagel published his programmatic essay that argued that ‘the true historian of medicine is a cultural historian’ in Janus.18

Janus seems to have lost the position as ‘cutting-edge journal’ of its early years when the centre of medical history moved from Western Europe to the USA. Leading German-American medical historians like Henry Sigerist (1891–1957), Owsei Temkin (1902–2002) and Ludwig Edelstein (1902–1965) were not involved in Janus anymore. This is very similar to the general fate of medical history on the European continent.19

As its subtitle indicates, the journal focused on the history of medicine and medical geography. This interest in medical geography was common among medical historians, and for different reasons. For example, leading German-trained medical historians in the USA like Sigerist, George Rosen, and Erwin Ackerknecht were preoccupied with medical geography in the 1930s and 1940s. For them, medical geography was ‘a form of social analysis’, closely linked to social medicine.20 Theunissen overlooks this group of professional medical historians, and places the interest in medical geography solely in the context of colonialism and cultural nationalism.21

In 1957, the resurrected Janus was turned into a journal with a focus on the history of science rather than medicine. But it lost its position as an international journal. The journal was increasingly filled by Dutch rather than international authors, as Theunissen has calculated. Simultaneously, the journal was conservative: it was not influenced by the British and American renewal from social history of medicine and science or science and technology studies. Personal friction in the editorial board did not help, and the journal ceased to exist in 1989.22

All in all, we need to understand the journal Janus of the first half of the twentieth century not just in the broader context of Dutch cultural nationalism, like Theunissen has argued, but also in the context of medical history as a field, predominantly in Germany. Then, Theunissen’s emphasis on Janus’ editors as ‘amateur’ physician-medical historians turns out to be of minor importance. In the historiographical debates on what medical history ideally looked like, Janus was an important journal. Indeed, the choice for naming the journal after the Janus head metaphor was no coincidence in this regard.

‘Janus Resurrected’

I will now turn to different ‘Janus Resurrected’ editorial pieces that appeared over the years, and the role of the metaphor of the Janus head. Janus was an ancient Roman god of beginnings, endings and transitions. Quite exceptionally, he had no Greek counterpart. In the Roman empire, gates, doors, boundaries, bridges, and the beginnings and endings of wars were associated with him. During the Renaissance, Janus represented the past and the future, and wisdom.23

In the modern period, the Janus head metaphor was popular in all kinds of cultural contexts. In Dutch water management, an eighteenth century patriotic Janus face monument, which celebrated a border on a Dutch dike in Friesland, was upgraded in the late nineteenth century.24 In art, the Belgian poet Karel van de Woestijne published a collection of stories under the title Janus met het dubbele voorhoofd in 1908, with Janus representing two emotional extremes, and a 1920 German film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was called Der Januskopf.25 In politics, Dutch newspapers regularly used the Janus head metaphor in political discussions on the school funding controversy, suffrage, and socialism during the early decades of the twentieth century.26 More than one century earlier, a group of Dutch political weeklies from the time of the French Revolution was referred to as the ‘jani’, after the first Janus (1787) and its ‘resurrected’ successor Janus Verrezen (1795–1798).27 Here, the metaphor of Janus was used in a political sense to characterize a moderate rather than revolutionary kind of Enlightenment: Janus ‘saw two sides of an issue, saw both the past and the present.’28 No reference was made to these journals in the 1896 Janus. And yet, the title of the 1896 opening section - ‘Janus Redivivus’ – and the choice for French as the editors’ language, might be silent nods to the ‘Resurrected’ Janus of the 1790s and its moderate Enlightenment ideals, and thus fit with the Dutch editors’ cultural nationalism. Sartons reference to Janus Verrezen in Isis is proof of knowledge of these eighteenth century journals in history of science and medicine circles.29

For the founders of the new Janus, the metaphor was more than a simple repetition of the mid-nineteenth century German journal title. The metaphor was closely associated with concerns about the development of a boundary between the natural sciences (including medical science) and the humanities. In his 1895 dissertation on the history of syphilis, Janus’ initiator and chief editor Peypers cited German scholar Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) to express his pessimistic view of the societal position of the historian in the Netherlands: ‘For the historian, a Janus, not a god to be sure, but a “Prophet der auch rückwärts schaut,” seems to be no place in our country.’30 In his opening article of 1896, Stokvis addressed the meaning of the Janus metaphor for both the disciplines of medical history and geography at the end of his article. First, as a true ‘Victorian’, he used passive female figures of the Sleeping Beauty and bridesmaids - ‘who only serve to add lustre to the magnificence of the grand festivities’ - to characterize the difficult position of medical history and medical geography in ‘the grand family of the medical sciences.’31 This could only be countered with a Roman god: resurrecting the German journal Janus was essential to show that history and geography were no frivolous hobbies, but necessary and useful. Self-evidently for Stokvis, Janus was the Latin god with two faces, ‘who looks both backward and forward.’32 But Stokvis slightly changed Janus as well, into ‘the God with four faces [le Deus quadrifrons]’:

Mais nous avons encore plus à coeur de ressusciter le Deus quadrifrons, aux yeux clairs et perçants qui tient compte de toutes les aspirations au sujet de l’histoire de la médecine et de la géographie médicale de par tout le monde, tant dans la vieille Europe, que dans le Nouveau-Monde, tant du Nord que du Sud, tant de l’Est, que de l’Ouest.33

With the four-faced God, Stokvis referred to the fourth-century arch named after Janus: the Arch of Janus at the forum Boarium in Rome.34 It was probably used as a boundary marker, although some scholars have identified it as the Arch of the Deified Constantine. In any case, the square monument is of the quadrifrons type: it has archways on every one of its four sides. It was this characteristic of the monument that Stokvis found particularly apt to characterize the new journal with its focus on medical geography, and its international ambitions. Compared to Henschel’s mid-nineteenth century Janus, the new journal appeared in a time of more intense and more sustainable international scientific relations, according to Stokvis.

A few years later, Janus represented hope for the position of medical history and geography. Peypers mentioned his journal – ‘two-faced and three-tongued’ - as the ‘one ray of hope’ among the general Dutch disinterest in medical history and geography, being ‘the only Sammelorgan of these branches of study.’35 Indeed, Janus did not do so badly. At the occasion of the five-year commemoration of Janus in 1901, the editors published another ‘Janus Resurrected’ piece. They proudly recalled that their ‘Janus III’ was now as old as the two attempts by Henschel put together, and was likely to survive, unlike Henschel’s journal. Importantly, this was the result of the success of Stokvis’ ‘Janus quadrifrons’ – the part of the journal devoted to medical geography – which was related to ‘the urgency of colonial questions.’36 (The financial support from the colonial company Deli Maatschappij and the Ministry of the Colonies was of course essential for this.) The editors were hopeful that the same acceptance and enthusiasm would soon befall medical history. Luckily, ‘The youth of the past disappeared like the century’, and they observed ‘A historical movement […] in the sciences and also in literature’. The editors ended the piece with the adage ‘Fortune favours the bold!’37

Bert Theunissen’s argument that the Janus head metaphor was only used by amateur historians of medicine who attempted to use history to support positivistic science is not entirely fitting.38 Among professional, leading German historians of medicine who were very critical of this historiographical perspective, the metaphor was popular as well. The American historian of medicine Owsei Temkin called his memoirs The Double Face of Janus, because his teacher Sigerist had used the metaphor ‘during my early, formative years’ in the centre of medical history of the time, Leipzig.39 Indeed, in the 1928 introduction of his new yearbook for medical history, Sigerist used the metaphor in the same way as the Janus founders had done three decades earlier:

The history of medicine has entered upon a decisive phase. Summoned to cooperation by the living healing art, it will have to show whether it is able to participate in the solution of the great problems which today occupy the physician’s world. But the history of medicine has a Janus-head. One face looks to the future with the eyes of the physician, the other one is turned backward. With the eyes of the historian it tries to light up the darkness of the past. Here too the history of medicine will have to prove itself. Here too it will have to show whether the rebirth of spirit which today we experience in all spheres has passed it by, whether in purely positivistic fashion it wishes to add facts to facts, or whether it is capable of interpreting the past, of enlivening it, and of rendering it fruitful for a better future.40

For Sigerist, the Janus head of medical history did not just look toward past and future, but represented two different personae with their own professional responsibilities: the historian and the physician. And although the historian’s face was on the past, the historian was responsible for a better future too, by going along with modern developments in historical scholarship.41

When publication of Janus was resumed in 1957, the Janus head metaphor seems to have been used perfunctorily because of the existing name rather than with intrinsic enthusiasm, one is inclined to think. Janus was resurrected as a history of science rather than a medical history journal, and this shift is also visible in the author of another ‘Janus Ressurrected’ piece: physicist Johan Adriaan Vollgraff. Vollgraff was a former Janus editor and one of the founders of the Dutch Society for the History of Medicine, Science and Mathematics, and was now 80 years old. At this point in time, the four-faced Janus of medical geography had disappeared from the journal without further comment. ‘Janus Bifrons’, the two-faced Janus, still carried the same meaning, although the metaphor had become less familiar:

I like to imagine the god Janus Bifrons – although I cannot find anything in the mythological stories – as a god who is looking at both the past and the future, who regards himself as a synthesis of what we thought yesterday and what we will think tomorrow.42

Vollgraff’s note that he could not find anything about Janus fits with a general decline in the popularity of the metaphor. For example, the metaphor was no longer used in Dutch newspapers during the 1950s – in Delpher, the name ‘Janus’ predominantly pops up as one of the four famous professional soccer brothers Van der Gijp. In 1957, Janus editor B.A. van Proosdij even asked why historians of medicine and science were so fond of naming their journals after ancient gods: Janus, Isis, Osiris? This question had become particularly pressing since Janus in its new shape directly competed with Sarton’s journals (Isis, founded in 1913, and Osiris, founded in 1936): why had Sarton preferred to found his own journals-named-after-gods rather than join the already existing Janus? Proosdij speculated that Sarton had not felt at home under the banner of Janus, and chose the names of Egyptian gods ‘to characterize the atmosphere of mystery that enveloped the sciences from their origin.’43 Janus’ clear view ‘on the past, future and present’, ‘like the prophet at the start of the Iliad’, might have been too clear and not mysterious enough for Sarton.44 For the Janus editorial board of 1957, however, this was no option: ‘the name of Janus obliges us to continue the initiative of another generation.’45 A new journal section devoted to making available primary source material for ‘future historians’ was one of these tasks. The first one was, of course, devoted to Einstein.

When Owsei Temkin called his memoirs on his career in medical history The Double Face of Janus its meaning had changed slightly too. Temkin used Sigerist’s general personae of the faces of Janus to characterize the personal split in identity he had experienced throughout his career as a result from his dual background in the profession of medicine and the scholarship of history.46

Historiographical reception

How has Janus been received in the historiography of medicine and science? That Janus predominantly became a history of science journal after the Second World War has had consequences for its historiographical reception. In the history of science, Janus functions as an important publication in the historical narrative and justification of the discipline. Historians of the natural sciences have discussed the journal as a self-evident part of the importance of their field, the importance of the Dutch field for the international history of science community in particular.47 For example, in his 2006 inaugural lecture as professor in the history of the natural sciences, Bert Theunissen appropriated the journal as ‘the first international Dutch history of science journal, founded in 1896.’48

In the history of medicine on the other hand, the journal Janus is basically invisible. In Locating History of Medicine, Janus is used as a primary source, but the contributors do not discuss it as being important for locating the history of medicine. Editors Frank Huisman and John Harley Warner discuss the short-lived German 1846–1853 Janus.49 However, they do not even mention its longer-lived Dutch successor, despite their observation of ‘an unmistakable renaissance in the history of medicine’ at the time of Janus’ founding, and their elaborate discussion of many of the German-speaking Janus editors.50 Their focus is on the German history of medicine as the prehistory of the German-American ‘founding fathers of a field that was so strenuously to resist a historiography of founding fathers’, as Conevery Bolton Valenčius has nicely put it.51 Similarly, historians of medical geography discuss the importance of medical geography for American medical historians during the first half of the twentieth century, but do not mention Janus which combined the two fields.52 Dutch historians of medicine do not mention the journal either, possibly because of its history of science focus in combination with its notorious leadership during the second half of the twentieth century.53 The only exception is Harold Cook’s review of Janus in the year of its death, and his remark that the journal was ‘cutting edge’ at the time of its founding. But again, this article was published in the history of science journal: Isis.54

In the late twentieth century, the decades of the journal Janus’ decline, the Janus head became more popular again in the history (and sociology) of science, while it seems to have been less appealing for historians of medicine. Historians and sociologists of science again started to use the metaphor to reflect on the nature of their field. Bruno Latour used the Janus head in his 1987 Science in Action to characterize an important paradox in science: on the one hand, knowledge is locally produced and context dependent, on the other hand, knowledge is universal. In the Netherlands, Bert Theunissen programmatically used the Janus head to characterize both teaching and researching the history of science. A historian of science has a Janus face: one face is focused on the task of teaching history to science students as part of their academic Bildung; the other face is focused on the task of researching the historical development of science. Although Theunissen stresses that this meaning of the Janus head is very different from how the founders of Janus used it, it is not so different after all. Stokvis’ geographical Janus head also reappeared, although with two rather than four faces. In 2015, Floris Cohen used the Janus head to characterize the two faces of the History of Science Society as the new European chief editor of Isis: American and international.55


This article is a history of the journal Janus, the meaning of the Janus metaphor, and the reception of the journal in the fields of history of medicine and science. I have three general points to make.

First, Janus was a much more important publication in the history of medicine than acknowledged in the field, especially during its early years. Leading German-speaking historians of medicine were affiliated to the journal, and dismissing it as amateur history in the service of progress is too simplistic. Historians who favored a historicist perspective on the history of medicine were prominently present in the journal. As Locating Medical History has argued more generally, the historians and physicians affiliated to the journal in its early years had diverse views on what history meant and how it should be practised, and these debates cannot be simplified in a dichotomy between amateur and professional history. Moreover, renewed interest in the different historiographical perspectives present in Janus – something that was outside the scope of this article – would be useful to diversify the German-American focus in the historiography of medicine and, possibly, science.

Second, at the time of the journal’s founding, the Janus head metaphor had broader significance in debates on how the natural sciences and the humanities should relate to one another, and on what medical history ideally looked like. The metaphor emphasized the importance of the humanities (the face of the historian looking towards the past) for the natural sciences (the face of the scientifically trained physician looking towards the future). The meaning of the metaphor hardly changed over time in Janus, but it changed from a very common to a less self-evident metaphor. In the history of science more generally, however, the metaphor lost its meaning of looking at both past and future, as this had become suspect of teleological thinking. But it regained popularity as a metaphor with a variety of meanings, among those – be it in a new context – the late nineteenth-century geographical Janus and the Janus with two professional faces.

Third, the very different reception of Janus in the history of science and the history of medicine is proof of the traditionally strong, but artificial boundary between those fields.56 This is occasion for bringing up my own meaning of the Janus head metaphor as a historian who identifies with both fields: one face looking at the history of medicine, the other at the history of science. The recent initiative by historians of both medicine and science to create an History of Science Society Forum for the History of Health, Medicine and the Life Sciences to overcome this very artificial boundary between the fields, is promising.

The new Journal for the History of Knowledge can in many ways be regarded as another resurrection of Janus – although this time, the editors have resisted the temptation to use the name of the two-faced god once again. The journal will have its base in the Low Countries, but ‘is explicitly global in scope’ and has a large international advisory editorial board.57 I hope it will be a venue for historians of the sciences, medicine and other fields of knowledge production alike. Dear editors, please add ‘medicine’ as one of the disciplines of interest, just to be sure!