Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The degree show at the Royal College of Art is always a fascinating insight into imagination-made-tangible. I was intrigued by Lauren Dutton's architectural project envisaging supplying body parts for donation whist providing a substitute mourning site, using memento mori grown from cell cultures. The out-of-body aspect, emphasis on ritual, and the stunning graphics all combine to suggest 'gothic Avatar'.

Also at the show was a project by Alison Thomson called 'The Chronic Facility' which uses food as metaphors for diseases and symptoms. A lot of Alison's work is medically related and deals with ameliorating unpleasant experiences. Her website has details of these projects.

Picturing the dead

As part of a new specialist course called 'Death, autopsy and the law' for fourth-year medical students at Imperial College London, I'm thinking about a session on the representation of death in Western culture.

Daphne Todd's 'Last Portrait of Mother' has just controversially won the BP Portrait Award. The artist spent three days painting her mother after her death. In a very candid interview with the Evening Standard she revealed that members of her family were upset by the painting. For me, the portrait's fascination lies in the tension between the shock of the 'ruined body' and the intimacy of the portrait. There is a very good piece on deathbed portraits by Jonathan Jones here.

Sally Mann's new exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery is also pertinent to this theme. Photography is often characterised as being 'click and go', but Mann uses an antique camera that requires a long exposure time. Her large-scale prints are using gelatin silver, give them a highly atmospheric, 'memento mori' feel.

The exhibition, called 'The Family and the Land', includes photographs from the series 'What Remains'. These are photographs of bodies decomposing in the open air at a research facility in Tennessee where the process of decay is studied. (The 'Body Farm' is well known through Patricia Cornwell's novel of the same name, and there is also a series of Body Farm thrillers by Jefferson Bass.) I was lucky enough to see the exhibition in the company of ethicist Wing May Kong, and our reactions to the 'disturbingness' of individual photographs were very different -- tempered, no doubt, by our different experiences with corpses. Wing May has direct experience of dissection, whereas my frame of reference is mainly cultural.

Both Todd and Mann are artists who feel that we ought to be more upfront about the reality of the dead body. Although there are so many representations of death on our TV screens and in films, it is telling that these artworks still have the power to shock.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Good/bad literary doctors

John Mullan of the Guardian has put up a list of the Ten of the Best Good Doctors in literature and Ten of the Best Bad Doctors. Decent lists, both, although one inevitably can think of additional deserving characters. I found it easier to think of 'bad doctors' than good, although maybe because central characters tend to be more interesting if they have a 'moral flaw' which gets in the way of good patient care. It might be a good intellectual work-out to think of equivalent lists for film and TV. But tricky... Is 'House' a good or bad doctor? William Hurt's character in 'The Doctor'? Bad at the beginning, good by the end.

Comics and Medicine conference

The Comics and Medicine conference last Thursday was wonderful! It was an example of a truly interdisciplinary conference, with authors, educators, researchers and commentators all represented and contributing to a very inspiring day. Delegates came from all over the world to share their expertise. It really did feel like the inception of an important new movement in medical narrative. The conference programme is here. All the talks were very worthwhile. It was particularly thrilling to meet the lovely Brian Fies, author of Mom's Cancer which has become a classic in the genre of autobiographical comics.

For the interested but ignorant, like me, Paul Gravett provided a very useful survey of the field, putting key titles in context. His comprehensive, cross-genre website is well worth visiting. For specifically medical comics, Ian Williams's website Graphic Medicine is a treasure trove of titles.

Whilst there are many patient-authored comics, ones by doctors and other health professionals are still relatively rare. GP Thom Ferris has a witty webcomic called Fear of Failure featuring Dr Lois Pritchard. I particularly like the narrative style of Thom's work: multiple smaller panels show the throughput of patients, body parts and symptoms, replete with the constant interuptions of a ringing phone.

Phillipa Perry has just published Couch Fiction, illustrated by her talented, one-time housekeeper. Along with a strong storyline, there are annotations explaining the psychotherapy underpinning the action. I have a signed copy and I'm finding it a fascinating read. It was also interesting to meet Daryl Cunningham, former psychiatric nurse who has drawn on his experience to write Psychiatric Tales.

I must congratulate Fatimah Mohamied, a former student on my Medical Humanities course at Imperial College, who developed her work on medical manga and gave a cracking presentation!
I came away from the conference feeling more confident about using graphic novels in my teaching, inspired by Michael Green and Susan Squire from Penn State University who have a great humanities programme within the medical school; Stella Williams from the West Indies who uses comics to teach communication skills; and Linda Raphael from Washington who spoke about using autobiographical comics.

Well done to Ian Williams for being the driving force behind such a great conference, and to the Wellcome Trust who sponsored the event.