A small group of devoted, internationally active scientists involved in socio-medical research initiated the foundation of European Society of Medical Sociology (ESMS) in the early 1980ies. Two outstanding founding members were Magdalena Sokolowska, professor of medicine from Warsaw, and Raymond Illsley, the former director of the Medical Sociology Research Unit in Scotland. They had both close links with the European office of WHO at a time when the "Health for All 2000" - programme opened the door for sociological expertise and advice.
At a Social Science and Medicine Meeting in Sterling 1983, the society was already established, with Magdalena Sokolowska as President, Raymond Illsley as Secretary, and Ivo Nuyens from Leuven, Jesus de Miguel from Barcelona, and Johannes Siegrist from Marburg as Committee Members. Importantly, a newly appointed WHO Euro staff member, Per Gunnar Svensson from Karlstad, Sweden, entered the scene, and, together with Raymond, organized the first real event of ESMS, a meeting on social inequities in health, held in Copenhagen in December 1984. Some 20 participants, mostly medical sociologists from different European countries, provided national reports on the topic, and these proceedings were subsequently edited by Per Gunnar and Raymond ("The Health Burden of Social Inequities").
The society's founding activity was devoted to one of the core topics of our discipline, linking medical sociological research with policy. The close links between ESMS and the WHO Euro -organization which were of critical importance for the survival of an extremely fragile association of academics from different parts of Europe did not receive unanimous approval. In the beginning, several colleagues were afraid of the WHO's dominating role, but later this concern vanished.
Since 1986 the society held regular bi-annual conferences. In addition a newsletter was provided to the members (at least since 1988), and the first ESMS summer school was realised in 1989 in Siguenza, Spain, under the leadership of David McQueen and Johannes Siegrist. The early bi-annual conferences were attended by an impressive international scholarship, for instance in Zagreb (1988), Marburg (1990) and Edinburgh (1992). During the early 90ies the society's name was changed into "European Society of Health and Medical Sociology" (ESHMS) to indicate a broader frame of analysing the societal dimension of health, a development that was enhanced at the Vienna Conference (1992).
At the Budapest Meeting (1996) the first ESHMS award was given to George W. Brown, followed by a awards given to Margot Jefferys (Rennes 1998), Johannes Siegrist (Bologna 2004) and Judith Shuval (Krakow 2006).
The short history of ESHMS reflects both the innovative potential of a European community of social scientists who are devoted to the study of sociological aspects of health and medicine, and the fragile institutional structure of an academic discipline whose members belong to different organizations, professional backgrounds, and academic networks. It is hoped that the enthusiasm of the founding period stimulates the society's future growth and achievements.
PS: In the ESHMS Newsletter vol. 11,no. 1, 1998, Raymond Illsley has published his highly valuable personal impressions and reflections on "The Early Origins of the ESHMS".