Saturday, December 05, 2009

Medical Poetry Prize

A major new poetry prize has been announced. The Hippocrates Prize is an annual competition for a poem on a medical subject. There is a separate category for NHS employees and UK students. The first prize is £5000. The only catch is that each entry costs £6. The deadline is 31 January.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Comics and medicine conference

The lovely and talented Ian Williams over at Graphic Medicine is organising a conference called 'Comics and Medicine: Medical Narrative in Graphic Novels'. It's scheduled for 17 June 1010 at the Institute for English Studies at UCL. It should be a real treat.

Confirmed keynote lectures by Paul Gravett and Marc Zaffran

This one-day interdisciplinary conference aims to explore medical narrative in graphic novels and comics. Although the first comic book was invented in 1837 the long-format graphic narrative has only become a distinct and unique body of literary work relatively recently. Thanks in part to the growing Medical Humanities movement, many medical schools now encourage the reading of iterature and the study of art to gain insights into the human condition. A serious content for comics is not new but representation of illness in graphic novels is an increasing trend. The melding of text and visuals in graphic fiction and non-fiction has much to offer medical professionals, students and, indeed, patients. Among the growing number of graphic novels, a sub-genre exploring the patients' and the carers' experiences of illness or disability has emerged.

Papers and posters are invited on issues related to, but not restricted to, the following themes:
•What motivates authors to produce graphic narratives with medical content?
•How does the audience for this growing genre differ from traditional markets for so-called ‘pathographies’?
•What additional insights can graphic narratives offer into healthcare compared with literature and film?
•What international trends are discernible in the production and reception of medical graphic narratives?
•What are the ethical implications of using graphic narratives to disseminate public health messages?
•What are the strengths of graphic fiction in bioethics conversations? In conversations between patients and health care workers?
•How have patients (and patient communities) turned to graphic fiction to communicate health care and advocacy information to other patients, their family and surrounding community, and their physicians?
•How do patient-created graphic fictions/narratives differ from physician- or health-care industry-created graphic narratives? What does this imply about the role played by graphic fiction in institutionalized medicine?
•How can graphic stories be used in medical education and patient education?
•What are the roles of graphic stories in enhancing communication within the medical profession, in scholarship and in the medical humanities?

Contributions are sought from humanities scholars, comics scholars, healthcare professionals, comics enthusiasts, writers and cartoonists.

300 word proposals for a 20 minute paper or a poster should be submitted by Friday 29th January 2010 to

Abstracts may be in Word, WordPerfect, or RTF formats, following this order:
author(s), affiliation, email address, title of abstract, body of abstract

We acknowledge receipt and answer to all proposals submitted. Abstracts will be peer reviewed blind and papers for presentation will be selected by Friday 26th of February 2010.

A report of the conference will be submitted to relevant journals and websites. All the papers and posters accepted for and presented at the conference will be eligible for development in a themed volume (subject to funding).

Paul Gravett is a London-based freelance journalist, curator, lecturer, writer and broadcaster, who has worked in comics publishing and promotion since 1981. He has curated numerous exhibitions of comic art in Britain and in Europe and since 2003 has been the director of Comica, London's International Comics Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Paul is the co-author, with Peter Stanbury, of the books Manga: 60 Years Of Japanese Comics (2004), Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life (2005), Great British Comics: Celebrating A Century Of Ripping Yarns & Wizard Wheezes (2006), The Leather Nun & Other Incredibly Strange Comics (2008) and he is the editor of The Mammoth Book Of Best Crime Comics (2008). On television he has been a consultant and interview subject on The South Bank Show's programme Manga Mania (2006) and BBC4's documentary series Comics Britannia (2007). Also, he appeared as interview subject in the DVD documentary The Mindscape Of Alan Moore (2007). He continues to write about comics for various periodicals.

Marc Zaffran, M.D. is a French-born Family Physician and a writer (under the pen name Martin WInckler). He is currently a researcher at the University of Montreal. He has written forty books including novels and essays on patient doctor relationship, the ethics of healthcare and the representation of Doctors in mass-media fiction including pulp novels, television drama and comic-books. He is currently studying the works of a French doctor and comic-book artist,
Charles Masson.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I was just going through my old files on my computer when I stumbled upon a folder marked 'Humanities'. I double-clicked on it with a smile. Good times.

We once went to _______ Museum/Gallery (Okay so I can't remember where it was..) and saw Monet's work. Giskin had asked us to/made us come up with a poem. And I found the one I wrote and thought since I was in such a good mood, I'd post it up here.

There once was a man who painted
Art so great, a lady swooned and fainted
The useless young miss
Awoke only to a kiss
To find herself all but tainted.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Narrative Remains at the Hunterian

Karen Ingham's new film and exhibit, Narrative Remains, at the Hunterian Museum is a fine example of not only Medical Humanities but also of doing a great deal with very little. Her subjects are a series of pathological specimens, collected and annotated by John Hunter. Neat little jars, with neat little labels, whose contents are anything but - among them, the throat and larynx of a singer silenced by tuberculosis, a diseased liver, a cancerous lung and bowel segment. Ingham's work takes the viewer right inside Hunter's pathology lab as he decides which specimens to keep, and then removes and preserves them. Yet it is not his voice we hear. Instead, the narrative of the remains is given by the patients themselves. It is as if their spirits hovered at Hunter's shoulder while he worked, reading the notes he made, explaining how they suffered and understanding why they died. They are neat little ghosts, calmed by death, intrigued by their awakening, first by Hunter, then by Ingham. If they sound pleased that out of so many specimens, so many dead, they have been selected for immortality, then they should be. Ingham's film may be small scale but it is technically flawless. The jars are lit and photographed like bright jewels, drawing the viewer towards the unsettling contents at their heart, mesmerising. The film echoes the overall effect of the Hunterian Museum itself, with its own extraordinary setting of light and glass.

Everything about the exhibit is useful and moving. The catalogue essays are models of clarity. Part of the film is genuinely funny (no spoiler). This is what museums should be doing - allowing artists of vision to interpret and illuminate their permanent collections - bringing life, light and understanding, allowing the silent to speak.

Narrative Remains is at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 35-43 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2A 3PE. Open 10-5pm Tues- Sat. Free Admission. Exhibit runs until 5th December.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My longest ever nose bleed - Part 1

I am pleased to randomly state that I have fully recovered from a nasal operation I had over 2 months ago.

I now feel sufficiently rehabilitated and courageous enough to actually write/type down a record of my experiences. I was considering doing this on my blog, but felt obliged to place it on this one due to influences medical humanities had on my stay at the hospital.

For some odd reason, the week before the surgery, I was not even thinking about it. This odd behaviour continued until the night before the oh so dreaded day, as I was forced into planning what I was going to take with me, due to being informed that I would spend one night in the wards. I was so wrapped up in planing my luggage, that I even asked my sister's opinions on which pyjamas I should wear. I ended up taking three manga volumes, my A4 hardback art book, a pot of ink, paint brushes, a pencil case, a Harry Potter book, my glasses (which I don't even wear), toiletries including facial wash, creams, and make up (god knows why I took them) an extra headscarf, pink woolly pyjamas (I forgot it was July, but liked the colour) and my journal book.

I thought fear might hit me like Heathcliff bashing his head against a tree trunk... but it didn't. 7.30 the next morning I was at the hospital, armed with various medication and pyjamas, whilst I still had not one ounce of fear, trepidation, foreboding of any other ill feeling, not even excitement. My family on the other hand were rather nervous.

I arrived at the medical admissions lounge, expecting to wait for four hours, but I was not even able to read 3 pages of Harry Potter, when a nurse called my name, I was interviewed for what seemed the 4th time about my medical history, which I am absolutely sure is all in the notes as I explicitly remember telling at least 3 physicians previously of the same details which got recorded into the same set of notes. The nurse would ask me of my name first in case I didn't know it, then gave me a wrist band saying my name on it to enforce my identity, I felt slightly like a prisoner as the hospital number had a much larger font than my actual name.

The questions flowed on to my asthma, medication, and allergies, of which I was awarded a second band, bright red in colour and detailing the murderous allergens. I really liked that band, it made me feel distinguished and special. The nurse kept asking me stupid questions about metal plates, here is how it went:

Nurse: 'Do you have any metal substance in or on your body'
Dessa: 'Just the pins in my scarf'
Nurse: 'ItalicAny metal studs?'
Dessa: 'No'
Nurse: 'Any metal plates?'
Dessa: 'Err... no.'
Nurse: 'Any jewelery?'
Dessa: 'No'
Nurse: 'Any gold teeth?'
Dessa: 'No'
Nurse: 'Any braces?'
Dessa: 'No!' (by this time I was thinking 'surely I answered all this crap at the beginning')
Nurse: 'Any retainers?'
Dessa: 'No' (I pitied her for having to ask all these questions to every patient by this stage)
Nurse: 'Any metal body piercings'
Dessa: 'No.'
Nurse: 'Anything metal that might fall off during surgery?'
Dessa: (I actually paused to think about it here) 'Err... no.'

I was then dismissed and called again 30 minutes later by the anaesthetist, who spoke to me in clear simple language, I enjoyed shocking her into understand of my medical knowledge. Then we discussed my susceptibility to vomiting at the hands of analgesics; glamorised by medical jargon.

10 minutes after this interview, I was again called by the nurse to do the only thing I was afraid of: changing into the hospital gown, I'd like to describe them like a sheet of material that's only purpose in life is to make you feel uncomfortable, thank God for the dressing gown they offered! Despite the rather exposed feeling that accompanied wearing the 'gown' I made a new found discovery involving my feet. Being made to wear tight white stockings to prevent thrombosis, I was pleasantly surprised to find that white socks remarkably suited my feet and made them look very daintily cute, all I needed was a pair of heels and I'd be sorted. The effect was somewhat ruined by the trademark label on one side of the stockings and 'Property of the NHS' written on the other.

The worst was still to come, I had never thought that wearing these revolutionary stockings and horrid gown might prevent me from wearing my trainers, and so, I had to wear green spongy sort of flippers which were too big for my good-looking feet and made me feel like a genetically modified penguin. The idea of wearing the highest possible heels, never seemed more tempting. It was in this embarrassing state that I walked down corridors filled with normally dressed people, in normal shoes and who could possibly have metal plates, whilst feeling incredibly out of place, even though I was in a hospital.
At the lifts, I parted from my slightly smothering family, and remained without any significant emotion. My indifference and nonchalance was even surprising me at this stage, the only thing that was running in my head was how I was going to get into surgery with my hair covered....

Friday, September 18, 2009

Barry's colonoscopy journal

My Mum passed on this viral, which I thought our Resident Colonoscopist in particular would appreciate!


I called my friend Andy Sable, a gastroenterologist, to make an appointment for a colonoscopy.

A few days later, in his office, Andy showed me a color diagram of the colon, a lengthy organ that appears to go all over the place, at one point passing briefly through Minneapolis .

Then Andy explained the colonoscopy procedure to me in a thorough, reassuring and patient manner.

I nodded thoughtfully, but I didn't really hear anything he said, because my brain was shrieking 'HE'S GOING TO STICK A TUBE 17,000 FEET UP YOUR BEHIND!'

I left Andy's office with some written instructions, and a prescription for a product called 'MoviPrep,' which comes in a box large enough to hold a microwave oven.

I will discuss MoviPrep in detail later; for now suffice it to say that we must never allow it to fall into the hands of America's enemies.

I spent the next several days productively sitting around being nervous. Then, on the day before my colonoscopy, I began my preparation.

In accordance with my instructions, I didn't eat any solid food that day; all I had was chicken broth, which is basically water, only with less flavor.

Then, in the evening, I took the MoviPrep. You mix two packets of powder together in a one-liter plastic jug, then you fill it with lukewarm water. (For those unfamiliar with the metric system, a liter is about 32 gallons). Then you have to drink the whole jug. This takes about an hour, because MoviPrep tastes - and here I am being kind - like a mixture of goat spit and urinal cleanser, with just a hint of lemon.

The instructions for MoviPrep, clearly written by somebody with a great sense of humor, state that after you drink it, 'a loose, watery bowel movement may result.' This is kind of like saying that after you jump off your roof, you may experience contact with the ground.

MoviPrep is a nuclear laxative. I don't want to be too graphic, here, but: have you ever seen a space-shuttle launch? This is pretty much the MoviPrep experience, with you as the shuttle. There are times when you wish the commode had a seat belt. You spend several hours pretty much confined to the bathroom, spurting violently. You eliminate everything. And then, when you figure you must be totally empty, you have to drink another liter of MoviPrep, at which point, as far as I can tell, your bowels travel into the future and start eliminating food that you have not even eaten yet.

After an action-packed evening, I finally got to sleep.

The next morning my wife drove me to the clinic. I was very nervous. Not only was I worried about the procedure, but I had been experiencing occasional return bouts of MoviPrep spurtage. I was thinking, 'What if I spurt on Andy?' How do you apologize to a friend for something like that? Flowers would not be enough.

At the clinic I had to sign many forms acknowledging that I understood and totally agreed with whatever the heck the forms said. Then they led me to a room full of other colonoscopy people, where I went inside a little curtained
space and took off my clothes and put on one of those hospital garments designed by sadist perverts, the kind that, when you put it on, makes you feel even more naked than when you are actually naked.

Then a nurse named Eddie put a little needle in a vein in my left hand. Ordinarily I would have fainted, but Eddie was very good, and I was already lying down. Eddie also told me that some people put vodka in their MoviPrep.

At first I was ticked off that I hadn't thought of this , but then I pondered what would happen if you got yourself too tipsy to make it to the bathroom, so you were staggering around in full Fire Hose Mode. You would have no choice but to burn your house.

When everything was ready, Eddie wheeled me into the procedure room, where Andy was waiting with a nurse and an anesthesiologist. I did not see the 17,000-foot tube, but I knew Andy had it hidden around there somewhere. I was seriously nervous at this point.

Andy had me roll over on my left side, and the anesthesiologist began hooking something up to the needle in my hand. There was music playing in the room, and I realized that the song was 'Dancing Queen' by ABBA. I remarked to Andy that, of all the songs that could be playing during this particular procedure, 'Dancing Queen' had to be the least appropriate.

'You want me to turn it up?' said Andy, from somewhere behind me. 'Ha ha,' I said.

And then it was time, the moment I had been dreading for more than a decade. If you are squeamish, prepare yourself, because I am going to tell you, in explicit detail, exactly what it was like.

I have no idea. Really. I slept through it. One moment, ABBA was yelling 'Dancing Queen, feel the beat of the tambourine,' and the next moment, I was back in the other room, waking up in a very mellow mood.

Andy was looking down at me and asking me how I felt. I felt excellent. I felt even more excellent when Andy told me that it was all over, and that my colon had passed with flying colors. I have never been prouder of an internal organ.


Dave Barry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist for the Miami Herald.

On the subject of Colonoscopies...

Colonoscopies are no joke, but these comments during the exam were quite humorous.....
A physician claimed that the following are actual comments made by his patients (predominately male) while he was performing their colonoscopies:

1. 'Take it easy, Doc. You're boldly going where no man has gone before!
2. 'Find Amelia Earhart yet?'
3. 'Can you hear me NOW?'
4. 'Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?'
5. 'You know, in Arkansas, we're now legally married.'
6. 'Any sign of the trapped miners, Chief?'
7. 'You put your left hand in, you take your left hand out....'
8. 'Hey! Now I know how a Muppet feels!'
9. 'If your hand doesn't fit, you must quit!
10. 'Hey Doc, let me know if you find my dignity.'
11. 'You used to be an executive at Enron, didn't you?'
12. 'God, now I know why I am not gay.'

And the best one of all.
13. 'Could you write a note for my wife saying that my head is not up there?'

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How women go down in surgery - in the former eastern bloc

I have been to the first women in surgery seminar at an international meeting of surgeons in the former eastern bloc. I perhaps set an unfortunate precedent by being naive enough to think I would just be plugging in my laptop and away I went. By the time I'd discovered the little men round the back who orchestrate it all (cf Wizard of Oz) whose English was not up to my question as to whether open office would do, I had to hand them my stick to translate into the dreaded powerpoint and disappear. My talk was not, thankfully, in the main hall with 2000 people but in the little session right at the back of this vast circular building (concrete, "a landmark in the history of reinforced concrete architecture", hilarious) but wasn't hilarious when my talk came up all - well, slightly - mucked up on powerpoint. I had left it too late to fuss about the line spacing. After all that preparation! And it had strangely lost all the photos of the kids. Had to hotfoot it, racing round this concrete famous structure to my talk at the back.

so, not a complete disaster but a really rubbish beginning. Got there, late, and the introduction was in full swing - but not in English. She put me straight on, and I talked ok, in English of course, without notes, apart from forgetting the name of one of the women surgeons in a photo - I had been going to talk about her but couldn't as forgot her name. complete blank. so had to move on.

Winced through the crap layout of 3 slides and the one of my partner looking official in his work photo (in none of my own does he look presentable like that) but without the one next to it of the
kids and finished it ok.

The plan was to have 4 talks in English followed by a question session. I had been told that there was some antagonism regarding any meeting specifically for women in surgery in this country from other women surgeons. This I have also met in the UK. But it isn't about the women who are already established and happy they are on the same level as the men. It is about encouraging normal female medical graduates - not crazy extreme workaholics but normal types who want a family, some work-life balance AND an interesting job, to consider surgery. I think. So I was looking forward to the discussion panel that I was expecting to sit on.

First there was a good talk by an Austrian surgeon, who had looked at the German speaking countries' proportion of female surgeons. They are better than us, anyway, with some highlights in paediatric surgery (50%!) and plastics. What are they doing right? Rest of surgical specialties all around 10-15% , with the same failure to increase numbers like the non-surgical specialties, so nothing spectacular. A talk on the history of women's involvement with the foundation of the Mayo clinic followed, then we had a crazy talk by a woman in black and white dogtooth suit with bright red hair which was all not in English either - so probably not crazy at all, I didn't have a lot to judge it by - and all rhymed but no idea what it was apart from obviously quite humorous.

This was followed by a quiet girl who'd interviewed some of the country's women surgeons (8 of them) and presented, battling somewhat against the wound-up now-raucous audience, her findings including quotes like "private life has to take second place to professional life, that is the way it is in surgery". I personally wanted to take issue with this, but there was time to talk at the end. Then our organising surgeon who is dashing all over running everything from the company who gave us free vodka (!) and the choice of chocolates to managing the eminent visiting surgeons from the Mayo (there is a historical Mayo brothers connection) gabbled through her questionnaire of women surgeons with no translation. I'd not been given a name place at the panel so had sat in the audience.

(but we'd already been interrupted by the president who had spoken for a while - after translation, the only thing translated, because he was dogged faithfully by his own personal translator as he moved around the conference halls - about how surgery was changing to be more delicate, like women, and had then interrupted again after the second talk to very pleasantly hand us out all great socking medals - including those who hadn't spoken yet - as he had to go off to welcome the international laparoscopic expert who was up next in the big hall. I sat there, wishing I could go to that instead of watching these somethings in a foreign language, nice as it is to listen to..)

We then had to put up with a big red-faced self-important bloke who stood up and started talking - not on the menu, but okayed by our leading vascular surgeon. He went on and on for at least ten minutes, cracking jokes, (none of it in English of course) stroking the vascular surgeon's hair fondly every now and then. Then he burst into "What a wonderful world" (I understood this) to which we were treated along with two whole verses. Not a bad voice, as he knew. But it was not the evening performance yet. I feel fairly sure this would not have happened in any other meeting of surgeons around the hall.

The panel discussion disappeared as there was only a female professor who started some kind of argument to which our organising surgeon replied in the same language then it was all over.
We got given chocolates to cheer us up. Great chocolates.

So, very let down not just by my naivety in not checking and rechchecking my talk, and in not being more proactive (no one TOLD me I had to go to the guys organising to get it on their computer, but then I didn't seek it out either) but also in the shambles and joke that the session turned into. I can't believe how far we have come in women in surgery in the England in that this would never be tolerated in our meetings, nor in those in Austria as I have heard. It is of course a cultural thing (the man-handling of women in particular), but to have a man stand up and dominate the meeting, (whoever he was) patronising us with his song when there were serious things to discuss is just incredibly disappointing.

there, had to get that off my chest.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Brain Unravelled

A short season of events and art installations kicks off today, entitled 'The Brain Unravelled'. Taking place at the Slade Research Centre Woburn Square, London, there are a number of interesting talks, workshops, screenings and performances, bringing together brain anatomy, neuroscience and anthopology. For the full programme, see here.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Healthy scepticism

Despite my lack of recent blogging (due partly to working full time last year which nearly broke me and partly to a qualm or two about patient confidentiality, given the traceability of bloggers), I have still been talking about medical humanities and even have discovered, to my delight, a secret poet amongst my surgical colleagues, along with a self-published children's book author.

I have explained the concepts to my family and friends, waxing lyrical over the benefits of adding the arts into the nooks and crannies of medical life, where things reverberate.
However, there are some amongst my acquaintance who are clearly not convinced...

I publish these verses, by a friend:

(in the style of W.S.Gilbert)

At the outset I must mention
it is not my 'vowed intention
to deplore the intervention by a creche of Keyhole Kates
into Medical Humanities,
or other such urbanities
('though similar insanities add tuppence to the rates).

It's a brotherhood of sisters
(devotees of Joseph Lister's)
who extol the works of Misters: Milton, Coleridge and Keats
as an aid to better rounding
of a surgeon's basic grounding
or, at least, that's what it's sounding like: an aid to greater feats.

A colostomy, gastrectomy,
a routine appendectomy,
or, p'raps the odd vasectomy to brighten up their day.
Then maybe, if they feel the itch,
a final fling with blanket stitch
before a song (at concert pitch) to chase their cares away.

They'll be oh, so sympathetic
(not a bit of it synthetic)
while prescribing an emetic, 'though, as sure as “Heinz means Beans”,
this firmly rooted notion
of such lit'rary promotion
will result in their denotion as a bunch of “Milton-keens”.

Signed : Sceptic, of Sale
(With tongue firmly embedded in cheek), to my favourite left-handed Registrar.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Medicine and Manga

I have recently compiled a review for a favourite manga (Japanese graphic novel) of mine, and Dr. Ian Williams has kindly hosted it on his website, where he details about various graphic novels with a medical content.

If anyone is interested; I enclose the required link.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Medical waxworks

The lovely artist and sculptor Eleanor Crook is featured in a video made to accompany the Wellcome Collection's new exhibition, Exquisite Bodies (on until 18 October). Eleanor taught a very good life-drawing class on our medical humanities course at Imperial College in April. She has a fascinating job making models, often from wax, for medical purposes. You can see some of her work here. One of her models, showing the different plastic surgery techniques developed during and after the First World War, can be seen at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Doctoral opportunity

The Centre for Medical Humanities, School of Medicine and Health at Durham University offers a fully funded three year doctoral scholarship in philosophy of medicine to consider the nature of the relationships among music, embodiment, health and well-being.

Music’s therapeutic potential is widely sought within formal clinical ‘music therapies,’ which are the subject of a considerable body of educational, psychological and health services research; the neurological substrates of musical experience are also investigated by neuro-scientific research. However such researches are relatively disconnected from philosophical understandings of music and of embodiment. As part of its five-year Wellcome Trust Strategic Award programme ‘Medicine and Human Flourishing,’ the Centre for Medical Humanities wishes to pursue philosophical understandings of the experience of music in the context of embodiment, and into the nature and meaning of musical experience and its relation to our sense and experience of our own embodied nature. Existing educational, health services and neurological research may be reconsidered in relation to the philosophical work as it develops.

Applications are invited from candidates with a first-class degree in Philosophy and relevant interests pertaining to music, embodiment and well-being. The work will be primarily supervised by Professor H Martyn Evans (Professor of Humanities in Medicine, Centre for Medical Humanities) in association with Professor Max Paddison of the Department of Music, whose research interests include philosophy of music and music therapy.

Further details about the research opportunity are available from Professor Evans ( Further information about the work of the Centre for Medical Humanities is available at and information about work on music therapy at the Department of Music is available from Professor Paddison ( or at the Department’s website
Applications must be made on line. Full details available from:

Closing date for receipt of applications: 31st August 2009

Read more:

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.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

'Pulse' exhibition featured on podcast

Elizabeth Hauke has put together a very nice item on the 'Pulse' exhibition featured on the monthly Imperial College Podcast. Download it here. Anjani Knoebel's work (pictured below) is one of the artworks discussed.

Monday, May 04, 2009


This painting by fourth-year medical student Priya Garg is a response to examining and taking a medical history from a torture victim. 'When I presented the case to the consultant he believed, rightly or wrongly, that the circumstances of the injury were not important,' says Priya, 'whereas I felt it was vital to see illness in the context of the patient narrative.' Every year students of Medical Humanities at Imperial College London hold an exhibition of artworks they have created as part of the course. This year's exhibition, curated by Mindy Lee, is in the Blyth Gallery, level 5, Sherfield, runs from 13 to 28 May. The official opening is on 12 May at 7.30 pm. Everybody welcome!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tribute to UA Fanthorpe

Today I came home to a wonderful fat cardboard package on my doorstep: the result of an indulgent splurge on Amazon. The parcel included a volume from my wish list, long wanted but a pleasure postponed. However, two days ago, I’d decided it was indispensable and placed my order: Collected Poems of UA Fanthorpe. I spent a happy few hours dipping into this substantial anthology this afternoon, savouring familiar poems and relishing newfound treasures. Frustrated by the sketchy foreword, and half thinking how nice it would be to invite Fanthorpe to Purple Coat Club, I reached for that trusty tool of all things biographical, Wikipedia, to gauge the poet’s current coordinates. How shocking to see, at the base of her entry, ‘Ursula Fanthorpe died on 28 April 2009’. BBC website confirmed it – the news released by her publisher today. What an unnerving coincidence.

I first across UA Fanthorpe’s poems in a musty library copy of an anthology of medical poetry. The poem was ‘Jobdescription: Medical Records’, a wry, subversive description of the qualities needed to overcome the lurking horrors in the ‘seamy insides of notes’. By emphasising the qualities not required in the potential applicant, the poem tells us so much about the poignancy of the job: ‘Weights of histories (puffy / for the truly ill, thin and clean / For childhood’s greenstick fractures) / Will not concern you’.

Fanthorpe worked as a hospital receptionist in Bristol which inspired her first volume of poetry in 1978. She says in the foreword to Collected Poems, ‘At once I’d found the subject that I’d been looking for all my life: the strangeness of other people, particularly neurological patients, and how it felt to be them, and to use their words.’ Her Casehistory poems ‘Julie (encephalitis)’ and ‘Alison (head injury)’ speak to the alienation of brain damage: ‘I would have liked to have known / My husband’s wife, my mother’s only daughter’ (from ‘Alison’).

Having set ‘After Visiting Hours’ recently as an essay topic, to be contrasted with Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’, my thoughts have been much preoccupied with this beautiful poem in which a hospital becomes a refuge from the ‘calling gulls’ of visitors, in which staff and patients carefully dance their way through ‘Their repertoire of movements’. I hope Fanthorpe found her last days in a hospice as soothing as the environment she conjures up for the shuffling, glass-bodied patients in this poem.

Although I have mentioned some of the medical poems here, Fanthorpe wrote on a huge range of topics, from Shakespeare to pets, university life to Christmas. Many of them are suffused with a gentle humour, others are more sharply acerbic. I’ve never met a Fanthorpe poem I haven’t liked. I am glad to have been thinking so much of her during her final days. She came to public attention in 2003 as rival to Andrew Motion for Poet Laureate, but I still feel she is underrated. I'm confident that UA Fanthorpe will come to be remembered as one of our greatest poets.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Call for Papers: The Drew University Journal of Medical Humanities (DMH)

The Drew University Journal of Medical Humanities (DMH) is looking for submissions for its second edition on the topic of healthcare disparities.

Suggested threads include:
Health/illness/access to care and social disparities (e.g.: urban versus rural communities)
Health/illness/access to care and racial/ethnic disparities
Heath/illness/access to care and socioeconomic disparities
Health/illness/access to care and disparities with regard to other demographic information (e.g.: gender, age, etc.)
Healthcare as a right
Social justice v. market justice
Health care reform that might respond to or rectify the above disparities

We welcome discussions on these topics from the standpoints of bioethics, public health, medical anthropology, health policy, medical narrative, and history of medicine. As medical humanities is highly interdisciplinary, we encourage submissions from whatever your field of expertise. We hope this edition of DMH will offer a greater understanding of the issues that we face as a national community in trying to determine what health care justice encompasses.

Mission Statement:
The Drew University Journal of Medical Humanities (DMH) publishes peer-reviewed, original research of an interdisciplinary nature, aimed at breaking down conventional boundaries, bridging the gaps between the humanities, social science, technology, medical education, and public policy, and inviting an honest discussion about the human experience of illness and the need for a more humane approach to health care. DMH, like the field of Medical Humanities as a whole, is committed to infusing medical education and practice with ethical, historical, social, and cultural meaning. DMH engages and informs scholars across all disciplines, health care professionals, health care consumers, medical educators, and policy-makers. Giving a platform to a range of diverse voices, DMH publishes articles that advance the work of Medical Humanities in general as well as articles that focus on special issues or symposia topics. Submitted manuscripts undergo a rigorous peer-review and editorial procedure to ensure the academic integrity of all published work.

Please send a statement of intent to Managing Editors Elizabeth Fehsenfeld ( and Katie Grogan ( Manuscripts should be submitted no later than June 12, 2009 and will be reviewed by members of the editorial advisory board. Manuscripts should be formatted in Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, with one inch margins and twelve point font, and should be in the range of 2500 to 3500 words. All copy, including quotations, footnotes, and references should conform to the guidelines of the Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition. Please include a cover sheet with: name, title, address, phone number, email address, affiliation. Submissions can be emailed to the managing editors or mailed to:
Editor—Drew University Journal of Medical Humanities
Caspersen School of Graduate Studies
Drew University
Madison, New Jersey 07940-4000

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Author talks at the Wellcome Collection

How exciting! The Wellcome Collection is starting a programme of author-led evenings, with writers coming to the Library to discuss their work. Both events are free, although booking in advance is advised to secure a place.

The first event on Thursday 23 April, 19.00-20.30 will feature Philip Hoare. In his 2001 book 'Spike Island', Philip Hoare drew on the resources of the Wellcome Library as part of his attempt to reclaim the memory of a vast Victorian military hospital at Netley (pictured above), on the shores of Southampton Water, close to where he grew up. In this lecture, Hoare will use archive images and film to re-imagine Netley's history through its ruins, and the disparate and sometimes surprising company of men and women who worked or visited there: from Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale to Almroth Wright, Wilfred Owen, Noel Coward and RD Laing. Details of the event, and how to book a free ticket, here.

The second will feature Mike Jay discussing his new work on Thomas Beddoes, 'The Atmosphere of Heaven'. on Thursday 21 May, 19.00-20.30. At the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, founded in the closing years of the eighteenth century, dramatic experiments with gases precipitated a revolution not only in scientific medicine but also in the modern mind. Propelled by the energy of maverick doctor Thomas Beddoes, the Institution was both laboratory and hospital - the first example of a medical research institution. But when its researchers discovered the mind-altering properties of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, their experiments devolved into a pioneering exploration of consciousness, with far-reaching and unforeseen effects. Beddoes' papers were destroyed around the time of his death. Jay's latest work has drawn heavily on the remaining sources the Wellcome Library holds, including the journal Hygeia, and the 'Manual of Health' textbook to tell the story of Beddoes and the brilliant circle who surrounded him. The event will discuss the chaotic rise and fall of the Institution, and reveals for the first time its crucial influence - on modern drug culture, attitudes toward objective and subjective knowledge, the development of anaesthetic surgery, and the birth of the Romantic movement. Details here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Two Mad Docs

Yesterday we went to see 'Two Mad Docs', an exhibition in little gallery tucked under the arches of Loughborough Junction Station. The Red Gate Gallery is an intimate space. The exhibition consists of eight canvases and 19 photographs. The canvases are by Nora Rahmen, all painted using just her fingers. Subjects deal with balance and connectivity. Using no more than two or three colours, they are dramatic and interesting.

The photographs are by hand surgeon Vaikunthan Rajaratnam. These are not for the squeamish! Admittedly, the almost-overpowering smell of the freshly painted walls might have contributed to the stomach-churning effect they had on me. There is an element of fascination in seeing the delicacy of nerves and tendons. It also gave a good sense of the skill needed in performing hand surgery.

The title 'Two Mad Docs' is a misnomer. There is nothing mad about the work on show here, except perhaps the price list for the photographs: at £115, I suspect that a photograph of a 'small cut on the hand of a chef' showing tendon and nerve damage is going to be a hard sell. A few of the photographs are very artistic and have an aesthetic appeal, but most look like they belong in a text book. That's not to say that they don't belong in an art exhibition -- it's a nice rendering of the multiple meanings of 'art'.

As the blurb says, these doctors spend much of their waking hours 'caring for their patients and with little time and opportunity for creativity'. Being able to put on an exhibition, however small, is a real achievement. It's good to see the value of creativity being recognised.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Masters Studentships in History of Medicine

The School of Historical Studies at Newcastle University is pleased to advertise between 4 and 6 Masters Studentship Awards for postgraduate study in Newcastle’s Wellcome Trust recognised MA programme in the History of Medicine during the academic year 2009-10. The closing date for applications is 30 April 2009.

The stipends for these awards will be set as follows: Two studentships will be awarded at either £15,000 (including home/EU fees) for full-time home/EU students, or £20,000 (including international fees) for full-time non-EU students of outstanding merit; the other studentships will be awarded at either £5,000 (including home/EU-fees) for meritorious full-time home/EU students, or £10,000 (including international fees) for non-EU students. Part time studentships will be awarded to meritorious applicants at c. half the above rate per annum.

The studentships are funded by the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine and will be available as of September 2009. The Northern Centre is a partnership between the Universities of Newcastle and Durham, and is supported by the Wellcome Trust. Successful applicants will join the postgraduate community based at the School of Historical Studies at Newcastle University. Postgraduate teaching and research supervision in the History of Medicine at Newcastle is delivered by scholars with established international reputations in the field.

The MA in the History of Medicine incorporates 3 compulsory formal research training components (30 credits), during which students develop research skills and methodologies; a compulsory core module ‘Introduction to the History of Medicine’ (30 credits), and 2 special study options (60 credits); and it culminates in the completion of an intensively researched 14,000 word dissertation (60 credits). Study consists mainly of seminars, tutorials, workshops and independent learning.

The programme provides the necessary research training that will either link into further PhD and postgraduate academic study, or act as a stand alone MA. Candidates who have successfully completed the programme will be eligible to take part in the annual Wellcome Trust PhD studentship competition. The MA also provides the key skills and training for a wide range of careers both within and outside of Higher Education.

Eligibility: Applications for the studentship are invited from highly motivated graduates from various backgrounds including the Humanities and Social Sciences (e.g. History, Classics, Philosophy, Literature, Religious Studies, Archaeology, Psychology, Sciences, Sociology etc.). Applicants require a good (or predicted) undergraduate degree result (1st or high 2:1) in such a subject. Candidates with a medical background are also strongly encouraged to apply, and the studentship is open to current stage 4 Newcastle medical students who have opted to take the MA in the History of Medicine as an intercalated degree after stage 4 MBBS. Applications from overseas candidates with equivalent qualifications are also very welcome.

Application procedure: Applicants are asked to send: i) a CV and list of academic qualifications and experience; ii) a personal statement and letter of application outlining reasons for wanting to pursue postgraduate study in the history of medicine at Newcastle and highlighting specific research interests (max 300 words), iii) copies of any relevant certificates and transcripts, and (iv) letters of recommendation from two academic referees. Applications should be sent to the Postgraduate Secretary, Ms Sandra Fletcher, School of Historical Studies, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, to arrive no later than 30 April 2009.

For specific inquiries about the studentships and about the MA programme please contact:
Prof. P.J. van der Eijk
Degree Programme Director, MA in History of Medicine
School of Historical Studies & Northern Centre for the History of Medicine,
Newcastle UniversityArmstrong Building
Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU
tel: (direct) 0191 222 8262;

For more information on the MA programme in History of Medicine at Newcastle see
For more information on the subject of History of Medicine at Newcastle see
For more information on the Northern Centre for the History of Medicine see
For information about postgraduate study in the School of Historical Studies contact the School's Postgraduate Secretary, Mrs Sandra Fletcher, at , tel. (+)44.191.2227966.

Prof. P. J. van der Eijk
School of Historical Studies
Newcastle University
Armstrong Building
Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

tel: (direct line) +44 (0) 191 222 8262
Visit the website at
(h/t H-DISABILITY listserv)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Photographing patients

There is a thoughtful essay on the ethics of photographing patients over at the Literature, Arts and Medicine Blog. Ana Bhlom raises a number of interesting issues, not only about privacy but about intellectual ownership and the dissolving of boundaries between fictionalisation and integrity.

She says: 'The ethical question in writing fiction, non-fiction, and creative non-fiction, is not necessarily about the propriety of using your patients as inspiration for artistic work–it has more to do with the subsequent dissemination of your aesthetic output. The issue becomes one of privacy and of authorship. If privacy is protected by changing recognizable facts, then at what point are the particulars altered so much that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction becomes absurd? If the fiction is tinted with the hue of a real interaction, then is the physician-writer guilty of thieving from her patients for the benefit of her characters?'

It's a good question, and good to see awareness being raised of this important issue. Sometimes anonymising patients and fictionalising details is disempowering in its appropriation of patients' stories. Yet, the uses to which images are put is increasingly difficult to control in a cut-and-paste world, and the meaning of image is dependent far more on its context than its content. Conversations about the way both stories and images are used need to be had, if possible, at the bedside. Bhlom's collaborative approach suggests a good way forward in negotiating the murky waters of documenting the patient encounter outside of a strictly medical environment.

Jo Spence (pictured) pointed out that the kinds of family snapshots we take tend to be present a very partial view of our lives. Family albums are filled with 'say cheese' type pictures. Illness is often a life-transforming experience and perhaps ought to be acknowledged in family histories more than it tends to be at the moment. How lovely that Ana Bhlom's patients often choose to display her photographs on their walls.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Unquiet Bones: review

'The Unquiet Bones' is not a book I'd usually choose (not being a big fan of historical crime fiction), but one of the joys of being a disciple of Medical Humanities is that it takes me to plays and films I wouldn't otherwise see, and encourages me to read books I wouldn't otherwise have considered. Melvin Starr's first novel introduces Hugh de Singleton, fictional medieval surgeon in the real-life Oxfordshire village of Bampton.

The author, Melvin Starr, is an American scholar of medieval surgery and English, but I am relieved to say that this novel bears no hint of dry academic discourse. It is written in prosaic, no-nonsense style, with an emphasis on moving the plot along. Written in the first person, Hugh de Singleton turns out to be an affable chap, eager to please his patron, Lord Gilbert. When the bones of a young girl are found in Gilbert's castle cesspit, Hugh is commissioned to play detective to solve the mystery. Read the first chapter here.

While undoubtedly a page-turner, 'The Unquiet Bones' reads a little like a potential script for a TV drama: long on dialogue and short on description. Rather too many sentences start with 'I' in quick succession, and there is little to explain Hugh's remarkable medical acumen and experience given he is new to the job. In short, I would have liked more literariness! However, the story has a twist or two and I found myself rooting for the modest Hugh, especially in his aspiring to the beautiful Lady Joan who is way above his station. Billed as the 'first chronicle', there is obviously more to look forward to.

Other historical series with a medical slant are the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters (I can really recommend the audiobooks of these which are beautifully read by Stephen Thorne, complete with lyrical Welsh cadences), and the delightful Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters. Peabody is redoubtable Victorian archaeologist with a modicum of medical skill and a considerable ego.

Graphic books on medicine

It just has to be the coolest topic ever for an MA in Medical Humanities: investigating medical narratives in comics (or 'graphic fiction' as it has come to be known). The man with this enviable task is Ian Williams is a GP, an artist, and now a student at Swansea University. Graphic novels are fascinating for their potent combination of image and text. The first one I came across was 'Mom's Cancer' (reviewed on this blog here). This is a growing genre of pathography: Williams currently lists 24 books on his website. Just this week, Matthew Johnstone and his wife Ainsley were talking on Radio 4's Midweek about their new illustrated self-help guide on depression (aimed mainly at carers) called 'Living with the Black Dog'.

Williams has launched a beautifully designed (as one might expect) website as a resource for health professionals,, dedicated to reviewing and discussing
graphic books with a medical theme. Inspired by Arthur Frank's notion of 'The Wounded Storyteller', Williams believes that these books are examples of how sharing the profound experience of illness with others is often part of a healing process. He argues that it is high time that graphic fiction was taken seriously, suggesting that comics and graphic novels could play a valuable role in:
  • Reflecting or changing cultural perceptions of medicine
  • Relating the patient/carer/provider experience
  • Enabling discussion of difficult subjects
  • Helping other sufferers or carers

Although studying comics and graphic books sounds like fun in the name of academia, these books are often harrowing, made all the more poignant by the use of the comic-strip format with its often-ironic 'punchline'.

We wish Ian all the best with his studies and look forward to reading about his conclusions.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Celebrities And Aid: New Humanitarians or Just Another Fad?

We are delighted to invite you to a public debate organised by the LSE Centre for Civil Society and Médecins Sans Frontières as part of the Lent Term Public Events programme at the London School of Economics.

Celebrities And Aid: New Humanitarians or Just Another Fad?
Date: Thursday 5th February 2009
Time: 6.30-8pmVenue: Sheikh Zayed Theatre, New Academic Building
Speakers: Lisa Ann Richey, John Street, Kris Torgeson
Chair: Dr Armine Ishkanian

Why do charities use celebrities to speak out on humanitarian action? Who do celebrities represent? Are they genuinely committed to the causes they espouse or have causes become another path to self-promotion? These are some of the issues that our panellists debate.

Lisa Ann Richey is Associate Professor of International Studies at Roskilde University. John Street is a Professor of Politics at the University of East Anglia. Kris Torgeson is the International Secretary for the Médecins Sans Frontières International Office.

This event is free and open to all with no ticket required. Entry is on a first come, first served basis. Information about coming to LSE can be found on the LSE website or by calling the LSE Events Office on 020 7955 6043 .