Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tribute to Dr Cecil Helman

I was very sad to hear that Dr Cecil Helman died yesterday after a short illness. I first got to know Cecil at a Medical Humanities conference about 6 years ago. I had just been sent a copy of his book, 'Suburban Shaman' -- it was not yet then published in Britain. We had a fascinating discussion about which aspects of the South African edition might need to be changed for a British audience (should a 'station wagon' be referred to as an 'estate car'?). We became friends. Cecil came and gave a lively session on my Medical Humanities course at Imperial for several years. This year he cried off, explaining that he was experiencing minor problems with his vocal chords. Tragically, the problems did not prove minor, but were a symptom of motor neurone disease.

Cecil specialised in medical anthropology. His textbook 'Culture, Health and Illness' has seen numerous editions, and he wrote many other seminal books and papers. But he also turned his hand to poetry, philosophy and fiction. 'Suburban Shaman' is a witty and profound memoir of his training and experiences as a GP. Cecil was never anything less than forthright. He managed to tread on quite a few toes as a consequence of his scepticism of institutional processes. But alongside his individualism, he was profoundly interested in the welfare of communities and individuals. He was fascinated by people and their stories and he had a real gift for passing those stories on, through his lectures and writings.

Cecil was a one-off. He delighted in being deliberately subversive. I remember him at conference flummoxing a presenter by proceeding to provide a detailed medical diagnoses of the subject of a portrait, in direct contradiction of everything that had just been said about the role of observation in medicine. 'I just wanted to see how she would handle it,' he said afterwards, with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.

Cecil added a great deal of flavour to the Medical Humanities scene in London, and, gosh, I will miss him.


Dafne said...

I am very sorry to hear of Cecil Helman's untimely death. He was a great medical anthropologist who could bridge several disciplines with clarity, wit, and ease. Culture, Health and Illness is the best book in medical anthropology to date.
Pearl Katz, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Anonymous said...

He was such a great person and extra ordinary teacher. I am speechless to hear the news.

Robert C. Like, MD, MS said...

I was very shocked and saddened to learn that Dr. Cecil Helman, my colleague and good friend, recently died at the Royal Free Hospital in London. This is a tragic loss for us all.

Cecil was a truly inspirational person in my life and that of everyone else who had the great privilege to meet and know him. He was a superb physician who provided exemplary care to his patients; a brilliant medical anthropologist, researcher, and teacher who was internationally recognized for his numerous contributions to the field; and a marvelous writer and poet whose thoughtful observations and insights into society, health, illness, and the human condition will endure and be a transformative force.

Cecil deeply loved his family, valued his friends and colleagues, and had a wonderful sense of humor and zest for living. I truly enjoyed the special times we spent together during his visits to the United States.

Cecil’s life has been a blessing and his good name and works will live on. He will be remembered as a person who truly helped to mend the world (tikkun olam) and will be greatly missed.

Robert C. Like, MD, MS
Department of Family Medicine
UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, NJ USA

Anonymous said...

I am truly saddened by Cecils passing this week, and too owe him a great debt for introducing me to the world of medical anthropology when we first met in London 30 years ago. He really was a most brilliant, even eccentric and baffling at times,and undoubtedly one of the most creative thinkers and people I have ever been blessed to call my friend.
He made a huge difference in my own personal and professional life as a physician,
teacher and advocate.His work made a huge imapct on thousands of professionals ,and by extension their patients and their communities, all over the world.We are all lucky to have felt his influence, and are diminished by his death.
I shall miss our conversations and our laughing together, pinching ourselves at where we were in the world, just decades removed from the shtetl.
What a career and what a character!
Alan Drabkin,MD
Dept of Family Medicine,
Cambridge Hospital,
Cambrdige, MA 02139
Family Medicine Advisor, Harvard Medical School

djhell said...

I am a friend and colleague of Cecil's in the U.S. This news came as a total shock since Cecil seemed to be in such good health when I saw him only about a year ago.

We are both physician writers and we met for lunch near Columbia University, where I work. He was looking for U.S. publishers at the time, and I believe he soon thereafter was negotiating with Kent State University Press for US publication of Suburban Shaman. I really felt that I had found a soulmate with Cecil, who had an amazing combination of literary, medical, anthropological, and humane perspectives. I had looked forward to having many more such ongoing conversations with him whether in the U.S. or the U.K.
I will miss him!

David Hellerstein, MD
New York

Yehuda said...

I was shocked to hear this extremely sad news. I just had written to him the week before wondering whether we could meet soon in London, as we so often did. I met him first at Brunel, when I came over to do postgraduate studies in Medical Anthropology. Cecil was one of the best Clinical Medical Anthropologist and has been a great inspiration in my work. We shared so many interests, least of which was the shtetl lives in South Africa and Australia. I will miss him deeply. Condolences to Zoe.

Sudah Yehuda Kovesh Shaheb MD
Paris and La Habana

sagov said...

I have been sad and nostalgic since learning of Cecil's death.We attended medical school together at the University of Cape Town and shared an overdeveloped sense of whimsy and scepticism about the conventional wisdom we were supposed to memorize.
I loved his humour and keen perception of both the tragic and the absurd parts of life,medicine art and literature.Condolences to Zoe and I am pleased to add my voice to those of us who knew and remember him.

Anonymous said...

I am also very sad...he was my professor at the master in medical anthropology (Brunel University in 2006) and also responsible for the confidence I gained to follow the anthropology path.
I included this in my thesis´agreements and I will never forget such a warm man and such an amazing, provocative, encouraging and charismatic professor.
Farewell Professor Helman.
All my love to him and his family.
Oihana Marco

Manu said...

I call myself a writer but I am lost for words; so I am going to share Cecil's own with you.

On 13 January 2009, he sent me this message.

Hi Manu,
I was very pleased that we managed to meet in Cape Town, and I really appreciated your coming out to Fresnaye to see me. In the last 6 days of my stay I began to feel a little more 'normal', and much stronger than before. Its a great pity that I had to return from 26 degrees to minus 2, and to the continuous cold, dark, and dampness, which is London life in winter. I am still making plans about my future. I am going to have to retire from my 2 academic jobs in September, as I've just reached 65. I will, of course, be much poorer than before, but will also have less outgoings, as my daughter will have qualified by then and will be, more or less, self-supporting. The tentative plan at the moment is to spend 3 - 4 months in CT every year, from about November till January or February. It will depend on a number of factors: my health (which hopefully will be OK), the cost of renting a place in CT (I can't afford to buy one at this stage), and also what I do with my house here - whether I leave it empty or try sub-let it each time. . . . Otherwise, I am back in the saddle; began teaching today, which I am more and more tired of doing, and will soon get to work to re-edit, and shorten my next book of medical essays: 'An Amazing Murmur of the Heart'. I also intend to re-work my novel, but to try to get it published here or in the USA by a publisher interested in novels set in SA. Let me know how your own writing career is progressing. Here, the economic atmosphere, including for publishing, is very gloomy indeed.
Best wishes,

During a recent visit to London, I made several efforts to see him, but in vain. His last message to me, dated 9th June, reached me when I was already back in Accra.

hi manu, I;m still in the wars and am in the Royal Free Hospital (ward 11
West) so you're welcome to pop in, Otherwise iy will be at he end of the year, Realy sorry to have mssed you, but been through a trly shit tie.
PS. Suburban Shaman is being reprinted. only 1000 copies but i'm sill pleased

UCL has a tribute at

Manu Herbstein
Accra, Ghana

Robert The said...

Farewell, Dr. Helman,

Your passion and knowledge were an inspiration for this Medical Anthropology student at Brunel during 2002-3, and I hope that I, in turn, manage to pass on some of that passion for the subject to others I meet, as you so freely did.

Anonymous said...

Dear Cecil...

I wish I could speak to you again. I had no idea you were so ill...We first met in the 1960s, when we were both visiting Israel. We decided to travel together for a few days. One night we curled up in our sleeping bags on the beach somewhere. Another night we slept in separate beds in a large room. Then "chacun pour soi est reparti, prendre les chemins de la vie" as the song from Jules et Jim goes. Decades later, I heard that you were working in London, and there we made contact again. Over a restaurant dinner one evening we brought one another up to date with our lives: marriages, divorces, professions, publications. You were no longer the slender young man I remembered, but filled out---just right---and handsome in a different way in your maturity. You were lively and fun and as we continued to meet for dinners, walks and talks when I was in London you became a cherished friend. You were not only lively and fun, creative and candid, but caring and helpful, offering practical advice on matters of several kinds that I followed to my benefit. I expected to see you again, as one does, of course, and the news that you had recently died was a terrible shock. I have just combed the web for news of what went wrong, and found this blog. I remember now that you had talked to me of trouble with your voice, your throat...I did not know of the reasons behind it, reasons you eventually knew. I miss you and shall miss you... Margaret

Giskin said...

Thank you to everyone for these touching tributes to Cecil. Cecil's closest friend saw him a few days before he died. He has explained that Cecil had a rare form of motor neurone disease that seemed non-aggressive but it did affect his throat causing problems with his voice and with swallowing. Over the past few months he was unable to speak and used a pad to communicate. He collapsed whilst on a trip to Israel and was flown back to the Royal Free Hospital's neurological unit. He had lost a lot of weight. In his final week, his condition deteriorated very rapidly.

It sounds like he did manage to finish his sequel to Suburban Shaman, called 'An Extraordinary Murmur of the Heart'. There is an obituary in the Independent by Clive Sinclair here.

Dr Raphael Mokwenye said...

I am very sorry to hear of Professor Cecil Helman’s untimely death. He was a great teacher with profound compassion and kindness. He was full of wisdom, knowledge and understanding of human wellbeing and suffering. I met with him at Brunel University in 2007 whilst a postgraduate student of Medical Anthropology. His lectures were usually very thought provocative and impactful. He has made a huge difference in my thought process I shall greatly miss him.

Sue Haas said...

I have been very moved to read these tributes to Cecil. Many people have expressed shock at the suddenness of his death, and are unclear as to what happened over the last few months. I was with him when his illness was diagnosed, and later as it took its course. I think he would have liked his friends and colleagues to know what happened, and am writing to be his voice, as I had to be so often once he lost his ability to speak.

We were part of each other's lives for over 17 years, during which he introduced me to a new world of ideas, as well as fascinating people, places and experiences. In South Africa, the US, Greece, Israel and especially in London, he shared with me his highly original and particular view of life, expressed with humor, warmth and love, and his particular ability to listen and to make those with him feel more intelligent and perceptive than they ever knew they could be.

Motor neurone disease was diagnosed in November, although he had had symptoms - particularly problems with his voice - for at least 18 months before, and had already lost much weight. With his insight as to how patients feel when talking to their doctor, he insisted I go with him, as a witness and support, to his own doctor. He was told that his disease was very mild, and though unpredictable, could continue at the same level for another 20 years. He advised Cecil to go and live his life. This gave Cecil some of the emotional reassurance he needed.

During the next few months his condition deteriorated unexpectedly quickly. He attributed most of his symptoms to stress, and as he was an expert in such things, many people accepted his diagnosis. On 15 May, with his doctor's encouragement, he came to Israel to be with me. He hoped that this, and the sun and sea, would make him feel much better. Two days after he arrived, and over his protestations, he had to be rushed to hospital in Jerusalem.
The doctors told me that his disease was in fact very advanced.
He was transferred to the Meir hospital the next day, where his experiences among Israeli and Arab doctors and patients typically produced some original and humorous insights. For the next 10 days I was with him all the time, and during most of that time, he insisted that his symptoms were reversible. But of course this was not so, and he was flown back to London, with a doctor and a respirator, straight to the Royal Free Hospital, where he died two weeks later.

He insisted that I read his last, as yet unpublished, book, called 'An Amazing Murmur of the Heart'. It is wonderful, and though his voice is stilled, it rings vividly through it, and my hope is that all the people whose lives he touched will yet have a chance to hear it. He was much loved and will be forever missed.

Sue Haas

Hilary Homans said...

It is only today when I read the Lancet that I learned of the untimely death of Cecil Helman. I first met Cecil in the 1970s through the British Medical Anthropological Society and shared interests in the health of ethnic minorities in Britain. Cecil had a brilliant mind and was a pioneer at the interface of medicine, anthrology and "lay beliefs". His article "Feed a cold, starve a fever" remains a classic. He will be sorely missed by us all. My thoughts are with his family and close friends at this sad time.

Henk Tromp said...

I felt grief when I learned last week that Cecil had passed away more than two months ago. I first met him in 1969 in The Hague (Netherlands) at Luyke Wittermans' home. Luyke was my history teacher at the Teachers Training College at that time and like Cecil an altruistic lover of ideas. In 1969 I wanted to pursue my studies but hadn't decided yet what kind of study I wanted to do at the University. Cecils enthusiasm for anthropology induced me to study cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. We have met regularly in the seventies and eighties, though sometimes with long time intervals. Nevertheless, every time we met and talked it was as if we had only parted a couple of days ago. I was always impressed by the fertility of his mind, the power of his imagination and accomplishments in the field of medical anthropology. Now that he has passed away I blame myself for not having called on him recently, just to tell him what a wonderful friend he was and how decisive he had been for my personal career. Losing a friend like Cecil feels like losing an essential part of oneself, even though one is still able to retrieve precious memories from ones past about him.
Condolences to Zoe.

Anonymous said...

A tribute to Cecil Helman, a friend for 50 years [as recorded in the Cape Times, Cape Town]

Cecil died last Monday and left a deep void in our lives.

He was a neurotic and demanding person. And yet he possessed the magic of charm and humour which made us all feel special. His quirky ideas, his incessant curiosity about life, his insights into the human condition and his unique way of describing the reality around him, as expressed in conversations, writings and paintings, will always be with us.

And now that he is no more, we are sadly the losers. We will miss him terribly.

Malcolm & Hanna Yellon [and probably Luyke Wittermans in abstentia]