Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Museum visitor numbers?

The news today reported that the national museums have hugely increased their visitor numbers since entrance fees were abolished. I am a regular visitor to the Science Museum, the V&A and the Natural History Museum and on not one occasion can I recall being 'counted'. No one clicked or clocked me in, insisted on giving me a free map as a way of keeping track, or electronically registered my footfall through the entrance. HOW DO THEY KNOW how many visitors they've had?

On the subject of museums, the Science Museum's Ingenious website has an interesting section on Health. It includes some wonderful pictures of artefacts from the Museum's collections, from a preserved genetically-engineered obese mouse, to a smallpox pustule gauge.

Sontag and Darling

Amidst the incomprehensible tragedy of the tsunami in Asia, also saddened to hear of the death of Susan Sontag from cancer. I didn't always agree with what she wrote, but she was an excellent, provocative essayist and had a profound influence on critical studies of the uses to which words and pictures are put.

On a happier note, just discovered Julia Darling's website. Julia is a poet and a novelist, and has written very well on the experience of having cancer. A look at her weblog shows how admirably focused she must be to concentrate on her writing (and she's involved in a LOT of projects) in spite of undergoing treatment.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Healing Environment conference

The Royal College of Physicians is hosting a one-day conference on 'The healing environment in our communities and healthcare settings: research excellence into practice'. It's on Monday 21 February, at the RCP in London. It will look at how the 'physical fabric and design of community space contributes to better social order and improved health'. Click here for the programme.

Monday, December 13, 2004


My friend, and quite the best researcher I know, Michal Sofer has found this intruiging piece of dance theatre. 'Lullaby', by the Jasmin Vardimon Dance Company, looks at the relationships between patients and those caring for them. It's on at Richmond on 21 February. A page of reviews is available here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

'Edge of Life'

Did anyone see 'Edge of Life' last Thursday on BBC2? This was a documentary following the stories of two very premature babies and their families. I found it hugely unsettling, and I've been trying to figure out all week WHY it made me feel so uncomfortable. The programme tracked the parents from before the babies were born, meaning that the parents must have given prior consent for the births to be filmed and for the cameras to be present at key meetings with medical staff, etc. -- the kinds of moments which are intensely personal. I am not sure why any parent would knowingly agree to this in the face of such uncertaintly about the pregancy's outcome unless a particularly persuasive producer talked them into the educational value of sharing emotional trauma on national TV. These parents clearly were not exhibitionists -- they weren't the usual willing victims of reality TV whose exploitation in shows like 'Wife Swap' or 'I'm a Celebrity' is all too predictable. So why agree to be filmed at your most vulnerable, especially when that vulnerability extends to a very sick baby?

I think what unsettled me most was that I was constantly mentally 'filling in the gaps' about what we did not see but must inevitably have played a dominant part in making the programme -- imagining the conversations and negotiations that must constantly have gone on between cameraperson and the family. 'Could you say how you feel?' 'Do you mind if I put a camera in the incubator?' 'Could I film your response when the doctor tells you your baby's not making any progress?' We saw glimpses of distraught parents walking arm in arm down hospital corridors, surreptitiously (it felt) filmed from behind a half-closed door. No matter what level of consent was solicited from the participants, how could they possibly anticipate the invasion of their grief? It felt horribly voyeuristic.

Both babies survived with a huge amount of medical intervention. One couldn't help imagining whether other babies were filmed that didn't make it. The documentary raised issues about choices that have to be made when technology makes the difference between a viable birth and a late miscarriage. These are issues worth discussing, but I couldn't help feeling that this was at the expense of intruding in the lives of others in an exploitative way in order to make poignant TV. I'm not even sure it was enlightening about the issues it sought to address. I saw a previous programme in this series about whether disfigured children should have plastic surgery. That seemed to me to be far more informative and less voyeuristic: admittedly the stakes seemed lower. I'm not in favour of any sort of censorship, but I do question the ethical value of this kind of public exposure under the banner of education. I wanted to switch off in protest, but that wouldn't have stopped it from happening. And it was nailbiting stuff in an agonising sort of way.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Disability Film Festival at NFT

The 6th Disability Film Festival is on at the NFT this week (1-5 December). Organized by the London Disability Arts Forums and the BFI the festival aim to raise awareness to issues of disability and filmmaking across the UK and in other countries. It includes panel discussions but most importantly features a wide range of documentaries, experimental and shorts by disabled filmmakers. Worth checking out. For programme details see: http://www.bfi.org.uk/showing/nft/dff/index.html

Thursday, December 02, 2004

'Mutants' book wins award

The Guardian First Book prize has been awarded to Dr Armand Leroi who researches evolutionary development at Imperial College. Described as 'a study of the curious and touching forms into which the human body is sometimes cast', this book is bound to be of interest in how we define what is 'normal' and the depiction of deformity in popular culture. Amazon is currently selling the book at 30% off. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Novel approach to signs of Alzheimer's

A new study has shown that studying literature has potential as a diagnostic tool for neural degeneration. Peter Garrard of UCL has found that Iris Murdoch's vocabulary and use of language was much simpler in her final novel, published a year before her diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease, than her earlier work. The story is covered today by the Guardian, Telegraph, The Times, and the Independent. There was also an interesting report on the Today Programme this morning (08.36 timeslot) on this, which included an interview with Murdoch's husband, John Bayley.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Worth listening out for

BBC's Radio 4 airs Our Lives in our Hands tomorrow night (Wednesday) in which a mother whose son suffers from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy talks to scientists about progress towards a cure. It's on at 21.00. If you miss the original broadcast, you can 'listen again' through the BBC's website.

Radio 4's comedy, Rigor Mortis, is on Thursdays at 23.00. It's a farce set in a pathology lab with fairly predictable black humour, but makes more-than-tolerable bedtime listening.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Life Interrupted

A new photography exhibition, 'Life Interrupted', has opened featuring photographs by acclaimed photojournalist Don McCullin on the impact of anti-viral drugs on HIV sufferers in Africa. The exhibition runs until 10 January 2005 at County Hall Gallery, London and is free of charge. There is also a very good online exhibition which also includes images from 'Cold Heaven', based on McCullin's 2000 trip to Sub-Saharan Africa. The photographs are given context by the stories associated with them (move your mouse over the pictures to access these in the online exhibition). McCullin's work is highly atmospheric and conscience-pricking. Black-and-white still photography presents a powerful vehicle for combining reportage and aesthetic, of which I think McCullin's photographs are exemplary.

Friday, November 26, 2004


Opened this week at the Battersea Arts Centre is 'Breaststrokes', a one-woman show by Stella Duffy after her experience of breast cancer. It's relatively cheap by London theatre standards and it sounds interesting.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Not worth the paper...

The media is often bashed for misleading reporting on medical studies. However, a look at the NHS's very useful site Hitting the Headlines reveals that newspaper reports of scientific studies are, more often than not, accurate reflections of the study. More problematic is the assessment of reliability of the conclusions of the studies themselves. Researchers tend to speculate beyond the scope of their study, or put insufficient information in the public domain for those hard-working analysts at the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (who provide synopses for the site) to evaluate the findings. A recent article in the BMJ urges us to 'Read only the Methods and Results sections; bypass the Discussion section' to avoid being misled by biased interpretations of the data -- interpretations influenced, they claim, by funding from for-profit companies. All this hardly engenders trust in the peer review process. Surely this kind of chicanery is what peer review is supposed to deter? It is saddening to see that the BMJ itself will no longer be open-access from January. Dare I suggest that they cut costs by omitting those speculative and misleading 'discussions' from their articles?

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

New Medical Humanities postgrad courses

You heard it here first (or not, if you heard it elsewhere): UCL's Centre for Medical Humanities is planning a Masters in Medical Humanities from 2006. Expressions of interest should be sent to Heather Mitchell.

Kings College London is also planning an MA, this time in Literature and Medicine. Start date is possibly autumn 2005, pending College approval.

Updates to follow.

'Examination' seminar

'Examination' is a photographer-in-residence programme at the brand new Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Last Friday, a publication resulting from the residency was launched: a booklet featuring the work of photographer Tom Wichelow and his students. Tom worked with a group of student volunteers to document and explore, using disposable cameras, both the medical school as a physical site and what it is like to be a new medical student in a new medical school. It's tricky asking students to put time and effort into a voluntary, unassessed course: it's wonderful (and admirable) that this proved so successful. Tom explained how the students gradually became more reflexive (initially the photos resembled Bacardi Breezer 'wild side' ads, but more metaphorical photos followed when students realised that there's more to being a student than pardee pardee pardee). Tom's own work, drawing parallels between the pipework of the building and the soon-to-be-exposed body's plumbing, was very revealing. There was also a provacative series of large-scale portraits of medical students, challenging our perceptions of what medical students look like and how we characterise them.

Also talking at the seminar was Sian Ede of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Sian gave a fascinating talk on art/science collaborations. She started off her talk by pointing out the value of the 'episodic' (snapshot-type recollections as a means of organising the way we think) alongside a narrative interpretation. It struck me that this way of thinking chimes with those of us in favour of 'experiential learning' -- people retain impressions of what is seen and heard which need not necessarily fit in to an overall narrative to have value or make sense.

Finally, Karen Ingham gave a fascinating insight into her work on anatomy theatres. She has published a book Anatomy Lessons based on her photographic work. Karen's project has been groundbreaking: access to dissection laboratories has been difficult in the past, if not impossible. Not only has Karen been allowed to create works of art based on these sites, she has also been permitted to exhibit her work in situ, with special permission for periods of public access. It was good to see such a strong public-engagement element associated with a topic that is usually surrounded in mystique and taboo.

Photoworks organised the seminar and supported Tom Wichelow's work. Thanks to organiser Helen James for an interesting and thought-provoking event.

Official launch!

Welcome to the Medical Humanities blog. It is with some trepidation that I write this, having only conceived the idea this morning. But such is the wonder of the modern technology: think it, enact it, regret it? I hope not. I had been toying with the idea of compiling an e-mail bulletin to alert those interested in medical humanities to forthcoming events, exhibitions, lectures, books, TV programmes, films and the like relevant to medicine. Although only 30 pages in to Dan Gillmor's excellent book, We the Media, it has persuaded me that blogging is the future face of new media -- potentially far more interesting and provocative than a bulletin or a newsgroup. I invite anyone, anywhere with anything to impart that might be of interest to the social and cultural context of medicine to participate. We have a real opportunity here to collaborate, share resources and pool ideas. I also intend this to be a RUR (really useful resource) so I'll be posting information about events here, and reviews if possible. The more views the better, so don't hold back. Anyone can respond to a message. To be given access to post your own blogs on this site, e-mail me.