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A Summer of CfPs!

18 Apr, 17 | by amcfarlane

The medical humanities in the UK is seeing an explosion of opportunities at the moment with a number of events coming up and several calls for papers available for your consideration – so if you were worried that you might get bored over the summer then fear no more! I pulled these together with the generous help of disabilities scholar Dr Hannah Tweed (@hannahhctweed, @mhrcglasgow) who tirelessly sends out medical humanities news to the Medical Humanities Research Network where you can find these events and many more.

Our first CfP is for an edited collection on disability and research currently being put together by Dr. Bronagh Byrne (Queen’s University Belfast) and Dr. Ciaran Burke (Ulster University) which will consider social research methods and their usefulness for disabled respondents. Abstracts are due on Monday the 8th of May.

Upcoming from the Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities on the 27th of April is the latest seminar in their series, “Augmenting the Body: Disability, Bodily Extensions and the Posthuman”. This seminar, on “Work and the Posthuman“, will feature Stuart Murray and Rebecca Randell and takes place on the 27th of April. Also taking place in Leeds is a symposium on Medicine and the Senses which takes place on the 1st of June. The call for papers is open until the 1st of May.

In advance of a CfP, the Northern Network for Medical Humanities have issued a ‘save the date’; Durham University will be hosting the inaugural NNMH Congress, on the 14th-15th September 2017.

The London Conference in Critical Thought is hosting a stream entitled “Habit, Addiction and Thought”. The call for papers has now closed, but the conference takes place at London South Bank University from the 30th of June to the 1st of July.

Also upcoming is a special issue of Modern Fiction Studies on “Modernist Fictions of Disability” to be edited by Maren Linett. Essays should be submitted in full via Manuscript Central, but you can ask the editor for further information at

Our next CfP is for a conference to take place in Berlin from the 27th to the 28th of October 2017. The conference, entitled “Stories of Illness/Disability in Literature and Comics“, is being organised by the PathoGraphics research team at the Freie Universität Berlin and abstracts are due by the 31st of May.

The Canadian Journal of Disability Studies is seeking full submissions for two relevant special issues, one on “Disabled Sexualities” with a deadline of the 1st of June, and the second on “Survivals, Ruptures, Resiliences: Perspectives from Disability Scholarship, Activism, and Art” where you can send manuscripts until the 1st of October.

Dr Ian Walsh and Dr Helen Noble, from Queen’s University Belfast, are the guest editors of a special issue of the journal Healthcare, entitled “Humanities and Healthcare”. Full submissions can be submitted until the 31st of July.

Perhaps a bit late to be posting this next one, but if you have a relevant paper in your bottom drawer you might consider submitting it to  Taking Back Health: Health Tomorrow, the fifth volume in the series “Health Tomorrow: Interdisciplinarity and Internationality” (HTII). Full submissions should be submitted by the 15th of May.

…And if all that isn’t enough to keep you busy then you can consider submitting a blog post on your research to appear on this blog, (just email the reviews editor at anna.mcfarlane [at], or watch this space where we will be posting more news and events in the weeks to come.

Symposium – Retroviral Cultures: AIDS, Twenty Years On

23 Nov, 16 | by cquigley


1 December 2016, 2.00 PM – 6.00 PM

Andrew Blades, Maria Vaccarella, Corinne Squire, MK Czerwiec

Old Council Chamber, Wills Memorial Building


2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of the 11th International AIDS Conference in Vancouver, at which Taiwanese American researcher David Ho and his team revealed new antiretroviral combination therapies to the world. Before long, Andrew Sullivan was (in)famously writing in the New York Times of the ‘end’ of AIDS.

Twenty years on, the global AIDS pandemic continues, and in the USA there are still 1.2 million people living with HIV. Cultural representations of HIV/AIDS in America – literature, film, television, art – no longer portray AIDS as a death sentence or as a ‘rupture in meaning’ (Edmund White); depending on access to healthcare and education, HIV is primarily a manageable long-term health condition. At the same time, Richard Canning has pondered that the representation of HIV-positive people in American culture has ‘diminished sharply’ since the 1990s.

Our symposium will ask how American approaches to and representations of HIV/AIDS have changed since 1996, and how they might compare, interact with, or challenge those from elsewhere around the world.


2:00 Welcome notes (Andrew Blades and Maria Vaccarella)

2:10 Corinne Squire (Professor of Social Sciences and Co-Director, Centre for Narrative Research, University of East London, UK), Looking Forward, Looking Backward, Looking Sideways: Representing HIV in the Time of Treatment Expansion (Chair: Andrew Blades)

3:25 Comfort break

3:30 Andrew Blades, Maria Vaccarella, ARVs in Text and Context (Chair: Theo Savvas)

4:15 Tea/coffee break

4:30 MK Czerwiec (Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, USA, and author of Taking Turns), Making Medicine Graphic: AIDS Comics as Activism, Support, and Remembering (Chair: Maria Vaccarella)

5:45 Concluding remarks (Andrew Blades and Maria Vaccarella)

All welcome! Please register to attend on Eventbrite.

Organisers: Dr Andrew Blades and Dr Maria Vaccarella (English)

This symposium is generously funded by a United States Embassy/ British Association for American Studies Small Grant.


Comics and Medicine Conference 2016

4 Aug, 16 | by cquigley



Graphic Medicine 2016: Stages & Pages

July 7-9, University of Dundee, Scotland


Shelley Wall, PhD, University of Toronto


The 7th International Comics & Medicine Conference took place in Dundee, Scotland, from July 7 to 9, 2016. It was (as ever) a superb event: inclusive, humane, intellectually stimulating, and creatively inspiring.

The field known as “graphic medicine”, a term coined by medical doctor, comics creator, and scholar Ian Williams, explores “the intersection of the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare” (1). It’s a diverse field, ranging from the study of graphic memoirs and novels of illness and caregiving, to the creation of comics in medical training as a means of reflective practice, to the use of comics as an accessible means of communication in patient education and public health, and beyond. Each year since 2010, the Comics & Medicine conference has brought together a community of comics artists, patients, healthcare professionals, academics, caregivers, and others, to present work in progress, case studies, and scholarly analyses. In its mix of perspectives from clinical medicine, literature, anthropology, visual art, public health, media studies, education, psychotherapy, and many other disciplines, graphic medicine makes an exciting contribution to the domain of medical humanities.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Stages & Pages,” called attention to the performative aspects of both comics and healthcare. The comics page is like a theatrical stage; through the narratives enacted in that space, we can explore and question the roles assigned by illness, such as patient, caregiver, healthcare professional, survivor.

In keeping with this theme, the conference kicked off with an evening of actual performance. After warm, humorous welcomes from the Lord Provost and the Director of the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies, comics artists took the stage and performed their work, reading aloud or speaking to accompany a slideshow of images. This DeeCap (Dundee Comics Art Performance) event was both funny and deeply moving—a reflection of the power of comics to speak with incisive humour about life-and-death issues. Elizabeth Shefrin, for example, read aloud from her hand-embroidered comic about her husband Bob’s prostate cancer, accompanied by Bob himself on guitar, and enacted scenes from their relationship using puppets; the performance faded out on the suggestion of x-rated puppet activity. Animation student Jules Valera donned a space helmet during her reading, to enact the experience of “spacing out” during a mental health crisis. Dana Walrath, author of Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (2016), about caring for her mother with dementia, punctuated her performance with impressive a cappella singing and hilarious impressions. “Laughter is a respite,” Walrath said. “It opens up new possibilities for ways to cope.”

The plenary sessions at the Comics & Medicine conferences traditionally feature a mix of comics creators and comics scholars, and this was the case in Dundee as well. Elisabeth el Refaie, the first keynote, offered a reading of spatial orientation in Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me (2012), drawing on conceptual metaphor theory and the semiotics of theatre to analyse the meanings of horizontal and vertical patterning in Forney’s page layouts. It was a fascinating, scholarly demonstration of how the visual language of comics embeds narrative meanings beyond what can be achieved in text alone. Veteran comics artist Al Davison in his keynote presentation later the same day, by contrast, gave a deeply personal talk, tracing the influence of his severe spina bifida, childhood trauma and abuse, and additional health challenges, on his artistic vision and technique. Davison is the author of The Spiral Cage (2003), a graphic memoir, and numerous other books. Comics creator, educator, and force of nature Lynda Barry, who delivered the final talk of the meeting, combined the theoretical and the personal, describing her own work and her teaching approach based on the central place of the IMAGE in thought and experience. A powerful metaphor emerged from Barry’s description of V.S. Ramachandran’s mirror therapy for phantom limb pain: using a mirror-box, a patient sees the reflection of their intact limb in the place of the amputated limb, and is thus able to unclench what they experience as a painful fist. This is what images do, according to Barry: they allow us to “unclench painful things in our lives.” With her colleague Dan Chaon, Barry also gave two intense workshops in visual storytelling during the conference.

Concurrent sessions were a similar and intoxicating blend of the theoretical and the deeply personal. “Moving Stories,” a panel I was privileged to chair, consisted of ten short presentations of completed comics work and work-in-progress, by turns political, critical, humorous, and gut-wrenching. “Comics as Medical Education,” on the other hand, presented valuable case-studies on the use of comics as teaching tools in medical and patient education. Other concurrents were interactive, such as “Diary Comics & the Diary in Comics,” which had participants experiment with the diary mode as a way to slow down and reflect on experience.

If I were a superhero, my chosen superpowers this month would have been to attend ALL of the concurrent sessions at this jam-packed meeting, and to give due credit by name to each of the speakers who presented. The sessions I attended were, without exception, inspiring and thought-provoking; at the same time (literally), the sessions I had to miss were just as rich, judging from the enthusiastic comments from other attendees during the social breaks. The conference programme, with information about all presenters, is available at

From the first Comics & Medicine conference I attended, in Chicago in 2011, I’ve been in love with the profoundly democratic ethos of the meeting. Artists, patients, academics, and healthcare providers (not mutually exclusive categories) meet on an equal footing. Everyone learns something; everyone has something to teach. Presenters and attendees share a remarkable openness and willingness to be vulnerable, while bringing an acute critical gaze to the ways that visual narrative enriches and illuminates illness and care. It’s truly an object lesson in humane, engaged scholarship, creativity, and collaboration.

Congratulations and thanks to Andrew Godfrey, this year’s on-the-ground organiser, for bringing this meeting together. Godfrey is a comics creator, graduate of the University of Dundee’s MLitt Comics Studies program, and current PhD student in English at that institution; his own research focuses on the links between graphic medicine and performance, while his comics chronicle and reflect on his experience of living with cystic fibrosis. Special kudos to him for scheduling the warm, sunny, spectacular Scottish weather.

The Comics & Medicine conferences are, to date, a tri-continent event, having been held in the UK, the USA, and Canada. The next Comics & Medicine conference will take place in Seattle, Washington, June 15-18, 2017.



  1. Czerwiec, MK, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly R. Myers, and Scott T. Smith. 2015. Graphic Medicine Manifesto. University Park, PA: Penn State UP.


Related Reading

Sarah McNicol. Humanising illness: presenting health information in educational comics. Med Humanities 2014;40:4955.

Ian C M Williams. Graphic medicine: comics as medical narrative. Med Humanities 2012;38:2127.

Michael J Green. Book review: Comics from the dark side of medicine: Thom Ferrier’s Disrepute. Med Humanities 2012;38:121122

Nicola Streeten. Book review: Matilda Tristram’s Probably Nothing. Medical Humanities (blog) 2014.


“Embarrassing Bodies” – the male doctor/female patient encounter

12 Jul, 16 | by cquigley


From awkwardness to impropriety: conceptualising the male doctor’s embarrassing body in Victorian medical literature

By Alison Moulds (University of Oxford)

This post is based on a paper given at the “Embarrassing Bodies” conference, organised by Birkbeck, University of London

In 1858, Dr Edward Lane – owner of the Moor Park hydropathic establishment in Surrey – was named as co-respondent in one of the first divorce cases to be heard under the Matrimonial Causes Act. Henry Robinson, a civil engineer, alleged that the married Lane had committed adultery with his wife, Isabella, while she was staying at Moor Park as both a friend of the family and a patient. The events may be familiar to some as they form the subject of Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace (2012). Ultimately, the case rested on whether Isabella’s diary – which detailed apparently erotic encounters between her and Lane – was admissible as evidence (as the prosecution claimed) or discredited as the product of a delusional mind (the argument put forward by her defence). When Lane was dismissed as a co-respondent and brought back as a witness, he denied that anything untoward had taken place.

Widely reported in the national press, the case also attracted the attention of medical journals. Their interest was not simply that the man implicated was one of their own; the trial tapped into broader anxieties about the difficulties faced by practitioners in the course of their work. As it unfolded, there emerged key questions about the male doctor’s access to, and intimacy with, his female patients. The British Medical Journal branded the case “an extraordinary example of the dangers to which medical men above all others are exposed”. Deeming Lane “perfectly innocent”, it suggested the public would probably acquit him, but that the prospects of his establishment were likely to be harmed nonetheless.[1] In this editorial, medical men are represented as vulnerable to suspicion and innuendo is seen as having a potentially detrimental effect on their practice.

Interactions between male doctors and their female patients were often represented as sources of anxiety in Victorian medical writing. Professional journals and advice literature advised male practitioners how to guard against difficulties that may arise from examining or treating women. In an 1885 article entitled “The Relation of Medical Men to their Patients”, the Midland Medical Miscellany recommends that “[c]onfidential relations with ladies of a household” are “not only to be avoided, but to be absolutely declined” and that “examinations of female patients should always be made in the presence of a third person”.[2] Similar sentiments are espoused in Jukes de Styrap’s The Young Practitioner (1890), an advice manual for prospective medical men. It suggests readers should be “extremely cautious [….] in having married women or young females to consult you secretly – especially, if it be for vaginal, or other private examination”.[3] In cases where one needed to anaesthetise a female patient, he recommends having another practitioner present. Then, if the woman experienced “hallucinations in regard to improper language or action”, the doctor could “avoid scandal”.[4]

There was anxiety that the practitioner might fall prey to local gossip or even accusations of impropriety from family members. In 1887, the Provincial Medical Journal (the new incarnation of the Miscellany) ran an article entitled “Doctors and Lady Patients”, which explicitly engages with the problem of medical men being “made co-respondents in divorce cases”. While acknowledging such instances are rare, the article suggests they bring not only the individual, but also the wider profession into disrepute: “[s]uspicion is excited, and the confidential relations with our patients are disturbed”. To protect themselves, practitioners are warned against being too “attentive” towards female patients, for “medical men are closely watched by their clients”. [5]

Popular fiction at this time explored the way in which the young practitioner (particularly in the countryside or provinces) may become implicated in local love affairs, real or imagined. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr Harrison’s Confessions (1851) the eponymous young doctor learns – much to his dismay – that his name has become attached to several women in Duncombe, earning him a reputation as a “gay Lothario”.[6] A darker instance of the doctor’s relations with women appears in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887). Dr Fitzpiers’s profession is shown to afford him both opportunities for infidelity and a ready alibi. When his fiancée spies his lover, Suke Damson, leaving his rooms early one morning, he convinces her she was simply an anonymous patient.[7]Intimacy between medical men and the young women of their acquaintance was not always problematised in fiction, however. The young country doctor repeatedly figures as the romantic hero, though he is rarely shown treating the object of his affections during their courtship.

As well as being associated with flirtation or adultery, even more serious allegations of abuse and misconduct could emerge from male attendance on women. In 1887, the British Gynaecological Journal featured a lengthy paper by C.H.F. Routh detailing cases of nymphomania in which women make “false charges” against their doctors. It presents the problem as systemic, noting “we are all prone, however innocent, to have such charges invented against us”. It interrogates how practitioners must “comport themselves” during encounters and, once again, discusses introducing a witness. The report’s chief concern is how men of “unimpeachable honour” can have their reputations ruined – it does not consider the possibility that the women might be telling the truth.[8] In articles such as this, it seems as though the medical press might have closed ranks to protect its own.

Where the evidence against them appeared irrefutable, however, the medical press did attack practitioners’ conduct. In 1858, the Lancet reported on “A Painful Scandal” concerning a Walthamstow-based surgeon called Richard Pilching. He had been found making written proposals of “the most filthy immorality” to a 13-year-old girl. The journal sought to distance him from the profession, arguing he had “mistaken his vocation”, and calling for him to be expelled by the General Medical Council (GMC). It cast him as a depraved predator, suggesting “his disgusting conduct” was “characteristic of the lowest and most vicious order of mind”.[9] By portraying Pilching as an aberration, the Lancet sought to uphold the image of the profession as one which was essentially honourable.[10] In my research, the journals’ engagement with improper or abusive conduct seems rare; instead interactions with female patients were more often conceived as potentially awkward or problematic.

The notion that male doctors or female patients might be embarrassed by medical encounters was a powerful argument in the hands of the medical-woman movement, which emerged from about the 1860s onwards. Aspiring female doctors and their supporters suggested that female patients would prefer practitioners of their own sex, since their modesty and delicacy would cause them to shrink from male attendance. In her essay “Medicine as a Profession for Women” (1869), Sophia Jex-Blake argues that “the unwillingness of very many girls on the verge of womanhood, to consult a medical man” causes “an enormous amount of preventable suffering”, and suggests some “ladies have habitually gone through one confinement after another without proper attendance, because the idea of employing a man was so extremely repugnant to them”.[11] She implies that male attendance is objectionable both for young women and their worldlier counterparts.

In response, some among the established profession argued for the essential purity and propriety of the male doctor-female patient relationship. In a debate about the admission of women to the profession held at the GMC in 1875, Andrew Wood – an Edinburgh-based surgeon – denied that female patients would prefer female attendance. “I have never found that women shrink from telling their ailments to me,” he insisted. In contrast, other Council members acknowledged the desirability of female practitioners. Dr Allen Thomson (representing the Universities of Glasgow and St Andrews) conceded that it was “incontrovertible that attendance on females by females is upon the whole more decent and appropriate”.[12]

The medical-woman movement capitalised on anxieties about male attendance, though it was careful to avoid impugning medical men’s conduct. Jex-Blake, for example, acknowledges “the honour and delicacy of feeling habitually shown by the gentlemen of the medical profession”. She emphasises that difficulties which may be of “no importance from [the practitioner’s] scientific standpoint” may be “very formidable indeed to the far more sensitive and delicately organized feelings of his patient”.[13] This demonstrates the way in which aspiring female practitioners deployed arguments around patient preference. However, as we have seen, even medical men adopting a “scientific standpoint” were often anxious about their attendance on women.

When discussing the role of embarrassment in the doctor-patient encounter, one usually thinks of patients demonstrating self-consciousness about their own bodies. While the female patient’s possible discomfiture was often recognised, Victorian medical discourse repeatedly grappled with the idea that the male doctor’s body might be a potential source of embarrassment or awkwardness as well. It was his contact with the woman – in private interviews or examinations – that needed to be negotiated. It was his physical presence which could be perceived as intruding upon the female patient’s body, intimate secrets, and private space. In order to protect his reputation, it was his actions that needed to be regulated.

The medical man’s presence was imagined as awkward but rarely as improper; while alert to the potential difficulties or dangers in treating women, medical commentators suggested that these could be contained or erased.

Such rhetoric was vital in order to sustain an image of the profession as honourable and gentlemanly. During this period, medicine (particularly the emerging field of general practice, which I have foregrounded here) was still divesting itself of its old associations with trade.[14] Whether medical discourse suggested female patients should be treated by medical men or women, an overriding concern was how practice could be rendered more respectable and genteel, more palatable to patients. Ultimately, attempts to navigate the embarrassment at the heart of the male doctor-female patient encounter reveal much about the professional anxieties of practitioners in this period.



[1] “Robinson v. Robinson and Lane”, British Medical Journal, 10 July 1858, pp. 561-2 (p. 561).

[2] “The Relation of Medical Men to their Patients”, Midland Medical Miscellany, 1 January 1885, p. 23.

[3] Jukes de Styrap, The Young Practitioner (London: H.K. Lewis, 1890), p. 110.

[4] De Styrap, p. 127.

[5] “Annotations: Doctors and Lady Patients”, The Provincial Medical Journal, 1 January 1887, p. 35.

[6] Elizabeth Gaskell, “Mr Harrison’s Confessions”, in The Cranford Chronicles (London: Vintage, 2007), pp. 1-86 (p. 77).

[7] Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders, introduced by F.B. Pinion, with notes by David Lodge (London: Macmillan, 1993), p. 161.

[8] C.H.F Routh, “On the Etiology and Diagnosis, considered specially from a Medico-legal Point of View, of those Cases of Nymphomania which lead Women to make False Charges against their Medical Attendants”, British Gynaecological Journal, 11 (February 1887), pp. 485-511 (p. 487; 498; 501).

[9] “Medical Annotations: A Painful Scandal”, Lancet, 5 March 1859, pp. 247-8.

[10] In a subsequent issue, however, the Lancet published a letter from the surgeon’s solicitors which asked them to withhold any further commentary on the matter while legal action was pending. “Correspondence: A Painful Scandal”, Lancet, 12 March 1859, p. 278.

[11] Sophia Jex-Blake, “Medicine as a Profession for Women”, in Woman’s Work and Woman’s Culture: A Series of Essays, ed. by Josephine Butler (London: Macmillan, 1869), pp. 78-120, (p. 106; 101).

[12] “The General Council of Medical Education and Registration: Session 1875”, Lancet, 10 July 1875, pp. 55-63 (p. 57; 61).

[13] Jex-Blake, p. 82.

[14] See, for example, Anne Digby, Making a Medical Living: Doctors and patients in the English market for medicine, 1720-1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 6.


Alison Moulds is a second-year DPhil English Literature student at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. Working as part of the AHRC-funded project “Constructing Scientific Communities”, she is researching the construction of the doctor-patient relationship and the formation of professional identity in nineteenth-century medical writing, including fiction by doctors. She previously undertook her MA Victorian Studies part-time at Birkbeck College, University of London while working full-time in health policy and public affairs. She is Peer Review Editor for the Victorian Network journal.


Related articles and posts

HM Evans. Medicine, the body and an invitation to wonder. Med Humanities 2016;42:2 97102

Devan Stahl. Living into the imagined body: how the diagnostic image confronts the lived body. Med Humanities 2013;39:1 5358

Alan Radley. Book Review: The Cambridge Companion to the Body in Literature.



‘I am Book’ – Clare Best

1 Jul, 16 | by cquigley

Illustrated talk for University of Kent symposium

on Artists’ Books and the Medical Humanities, on 21 April 2016

I had been so looking forward to this wonderful symposium devised, designed and immaculately planned by Stella Bolaki, and to seeing the exhibition of Martha Hall’s and other book artists’ work  – which is still on until 14 August  (Prescriptions Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, 21 April-14 August 2016). Then I went down with a virus the day before the symposium and lost my voice overnight. Stella very kindly delivered my talk for me and showed the images that went with the words. Here is a potted version of my talk. See some of the images at

As well as being a writer, I have worked as a fine bookbinder, a bookseller, an editor and a Creative Writing teacher. Throughout my life, making books has provided me with metaphorical and physical structures within which to reconstruct versions of my self, and body.

I am Book. A bold statement, but a pragmatic one. To a great extent we are all Book. We have our narratives, we talk of turning the page, or of starting a new chapter in our lives. We shelter, disguise or hide ourselves between covers. But I think I’ve always been particularly absorbed in the idea of books, of Bookness, and today I’m going to talk about why that is so, and perhaps my sense of Bookness might suggest things about artistic identity in general.

My father was a papermaker for his entire working life. As children, my brothers and I spent our Saturday afternoons at Dartford Paper Mill, where my father was then Manager. Our lives were full of paper samples and offcuts. I wrote on them, folded them into pamphlets and made childish books out of them from my earliest years. And I was an obsessive reader. It all began with the illustrated Golden Treasury of Poetry I was given for my 6th birthday. It’s still one of my most precious belongings. I feel a primal thrill when I open it. Most of the time, growing up, I had my nose in a book.

I went on to read English Literature at Cambridge, gathering along the way a passion for print and fine books, and after university I decided to become a book maker and book doctor – I trained as a Fine Bookbinder and loved working with fine papers, cloths, marbled papers, leather, vellum, gold leaf. But after nearly wrecking my eyesight with close work (gold tooling) I was obliged to change professional direction. I went to work for Tim Waterstone in the early 1980s when his bookshops were taking London by storm. In time I moved across from the art book department at the High Street Kensington store to working with Waterstones Publishing Division, first as a researcher, then as an editor. Later I was an editor for ten years with the French publisher Gallimard Jeunesse and their English language partner Moonlight Publishing.

I can see now that up to this point I was wanting more and more to inhabit Bookness – to read, to make and bind, to edit and publish and sell – but had not yet dared to jump into the very stuff of my identity, or identities – the writing itself. And, through the writing, to uncover the reasons for my Bookness in the first place.

So I see these stages of my life, up to my early 40s, as serial constructions, deconstructions and reconstructions of different versions of myself in the world, in efforts to find out what I was and where I belonged. I was creating and exploring a kind of library showing different aspects of my identity, or indeed different identities.

Since then, the past twenty years have represented a deeper and infinitely more satisfying deconstruction and reconstruction of my self, my selves, through writing and making Books that I inhabit from the inside, outwards.

I had always written, but the pressure to ‘come out’ as a writer built up through the 1990s and beyond. The latter part of this period then coincided with another pressure in my life, that of facing head-on my high risk of contracting the genetic breast cancer in my mother’s family. The result of this confluence was my first full collection of poetry, Excisions, which has at its core the autobiographical cycle Self-portrait without Breasts.

(Here I would have read a few of these poems, alongside showing some of Laura Stevens’ photographs which were taken in two shoots, the first a few weeks before, and the second some 18 months after, my risk-reducing double mastectomy.)


Self-portrait without Breasts


Tangled hair, charcoal-socket eyes,

mouth slack after one more long night

restless on my back. This body’s fenscape,

manscaped, hills removed – the meaty joins

still livid, tight shut mouths

where distant territories were stitched


in touch. Blood seeps in deltas over ribs,

yellow and purple track to the waist.

You’re even more beautiful now, you say

and I believe, for though I never was, I am

explorer, seeker – I’ve travelled

and I have an ear for truth.




When you cast me, I held my breath

as the plaster set. You kept your focus,

capturing the contours of my breasts.


Remember that awkward fold by the clavicle,

air trapped between layers, remember

my fear – that flesh could not be cast


to look like flesh. But now, when I touch

the rough white woven skin, I want to quit

my body, let the twin chalk rind


contain my breath, while I recall a lover’s kiss,

the heat of milk-tight flesh, my newborn

trying to focus as I held him.


How will I remember this?

Numb flesh stapled over ribs,

my breath snagged within.


Making the Self-portrait poems provided me not only with a way of working through and revisioning my experience of this trauma and its many repercussions, but also with a way of reconstructing my changed body into a body of work – and, metaphorically and literally, into a Book. Excisions has proved to be a key book in my development as a writer and in my personal growth – a milestone on my artistic journey. At the level of line and stanza, as well as at the level of physical object, I used poetic form to bring new order to my altered identity and to my sense of belonging both in terms of family history and artistic inheritance.

I later put together that very solo experience of writing the Self-portrait without Breasts poems with Laura Stevens’ before and after photos (in book/pamphlet form, as Breastless).

Since then I have returned several times to the Bookish concept of collaboration – through a site-specific theatre piece called Vacant Possession co-written with Sara Clifford in summer 2015, through a multimedia project Take Me With You: the museum of friendship, remembrance and loss, with the film-maker Tim Andrews, which was launched at BSMS in February 2016, through Springlines, a project with the painter Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis in which we are exploring hidden and mysterious bodies of water across the South of England – and through a three-way collaboration to make CELL, involving my own long poem in twelve parts, Michaela Ridgway’s drawings and Katy Mawhood’s design.

This last project, CELL, had been many years in gestation before being published in its unusual ‘almost-pamphlet’ state in 2015, and in some respects it is – of all the books I have made – the one that most closely represents, in its themes and emotional content and in its form, my own earliest sense of identity.

The poem is a retelling of the story of Christine Carpenter, a girl of fourteen who was enclosed in an anchorite cell in 1329. She requested release after more than a thousand days of living in the cell, and did come out, only to be forcibly re-enclosed when the Bishop heard of her release.

I myself was sexually abused, and emotionally ‘locked away’ as a young child. I underwent many years of isolation, silence, shame and suffering before finding my way out of the cell and into healing.

(I would then have read out parts of an interview about CELL with Kay Syrad for the most recent edition of The Frogmore Papers.)


Kay Syrad in dialogue with Clare Best about CELL (Frogmore Press, 2015)


‘KS: Getting ready to read CELL, I found myself acting rather ritualistically: I cleared the table, placed the pamphlet parallel to the edge of it, carefully removed the wrapper, studied the cover and the printed burgundy paper sleeve, eased off the sleeve and finally held the pamphlet in my two hands. Standing up throughout, I read the poem until I came to the point where, following the diagram, I was to unfold the pages in a way that creates a paper ‘cell’. There could be no rush.


I think this is the closest I have come to genuinely embodied poetry: knowing there is a potential space within the form, waiting for it, creating it, reading the poetry within that confined space, unfolding the structure to a flat sheet and then refolding it into its pamphlet form – these experiences seem to me quite as emotionally significant as reading the poem. Would you agree?


CB: With CELL, I wanted the reader’s experience of content and physical form to be especially closely bound.


To write the poem, I’d researched what happens to the body and mind in situations of extreme privation such as enclosure in a basic cell over this kind of period. I wanted to emphasise the changes Christine would have lived through by achieving a physical form for the work which is several different things at once (pamphlet, paper sculpture, flat printed sheet) and which suggests alternations between different states.


The object’s form is designed to mirror the unfolding drama described in the poetry and the drawings. Early sections of the poem can be read by turning the pages, so far so relatively normal. Then the reader discovers the ‘cell’. Next they must open the entire sheet – making the ‘cell’ vanish and freeing its imagined prisoner – in order to find and read the last section of the poem. Finally, refolding the sheet into a pamphlet is like re-enclosing Christine or even burying her. Throughout, the reader is in some way complicit in the events of the poem simply by carrying out the act of reading.


KS: Your crystal clear, unflinching poem lives and breathes not only the pain of its subject, Christine Carpenter, but her heart-breaking effort to justify her pain – and in this way the poem speaks to every woman who knows the cultural and mortal price of imagined or projected ‘sin’. Clare, what precipitated the writing of CELL?


CB: I’d started thinking about the themes in CELL when I spent some intense weeks working with male life prisoners, witnessing the damage that separation and isolation can do to a person. And I know a lot, personally, about the damage inflicted on the self by shame. Finding and retelling Christine’s story presented an opportunity to write in a focused way about the double prison of isolation and shame.


CELL evolved slowly over a number of years when I was working on other poems and sequences and also on a prose memoir which explores relationships between daughter and father, daughter and mother. Christine’s mother plays an important role in CELL, although we never hear her voice. There are also male figures in the poem – the priest/father figure whom Christine watches through her cell window, the real or remembered or imagined Lucifer/rapist, and the Bishop. The mother’s absence, together with the ambiguous overlapping presences of these males, points to some essential but unspoken truth about Christine’s vulnerability. Today we would probably say that she was acting out a traumatic past. I am interested in how the ‘choice’ of extreme deprivation (still) can be framed as religious cleansing.


But in some ways I wrote CELL blind and it wasn’t until the poem was almost complete that I realised fully what it was about.


KS: The pen and charcoal drawings by Michaela Ridgway (who is herself a poet) also embody a claustrophobic intensity in the way they refuse to stay within their borders, at once hiding and exposing a female body that is tender and fierce, layered, smudged (almost erased), dark or clear. Can you tell us how this extremely effective collaboration began and how it developed into what we see here?


CB: I was finishing the umpteenth draft of CELL and beginning to think about how to send it out into the world, when I saw Michaela’s powerful and enigmatic drawings of female nudes which she was posting on Facebook. We met and talked at length. Michaela completely ‘got’ the poem and the layers of it, plus she agreed with my aim of wanting poem and art to work independently and together – this was no illustration task.


We talked about how we wanted words and images to complement each other, moods and feelings to bounce around between them. From this point, our work was to whittle down the choice of drawings, discover how to sit the images within or across the confines of rectangular spaces, and figure out where to place them in relation to the poetry in order to imply both incarceration and breakout, confinement and rebellion. We also wanted some significant blank space – with only a single folding sheet this was challenging, but we managed it!

At the same time that Michaela and I were thinking about all this, we were consulting the designer Katy Mawhood, whom I had commissioned. Katy had excellent ideas for placing Michaela’s art and my words in the context of the particular pamphlet form we had decided on. For instance, Katy’s suggestion for the lettering on the cover, where the C of CELL appears like a cap over the neck of a headless female figure, was daring. Michaela loved it and so did I. In fact, that C and the entire cover design encapsulate the power of word and image working in close harness.’

To finish, I’d say that for me and for my evolving identities, the idea of Bookness carries sacramental meaning.

Books, in all their forms and in all their manifestations in my life, have been my saving and my making, my containment and my freedom, my focus, my work and my relaxation.

I made my first books with my father’s discarded paper. Later – in training to be a bookbinder – I was preparing to rescue, restore and protect my own damaged and vulnerable yet resilient substance, my own Bookness. I was drawn to bookselling and publishing because they kept me in close contact with my life blood. But writing and imagining my own Books into being has been and is for me the most faithful and true expression of my identity/ies.

I like to think of my bookbinding skills, tools and materials as interchangeable with elements of my life and creativity. I start with flat sheets, I fold and sew and cut them into books, press them in presses, cover them, decorate them, leave them under weights. Like the surgeon or the tailor – as a writer, artist and maker of books, I keep my knives sharp, my eyes clear, my needles and tape measure close to me.

As a child I reached for what was closest and I made of the materials what I could, what I had to. I have continued to do this and I will do it all my life.


The bookbinder


Pare the leather, thin the skin

where it must stretch and crease.

Then paste: the tanned flesh darkens,


wet and chill, fingers working

over spine and cords, into joints,

mitreing corners neat and flat.


Bandage the book in paper, let it

settle under weights, day after day

until the leather’s dry and tight.


When the time is right for finishing,

black the room, clamp the book

spine up in the beech-wood press,


the lamp pointing where to begin.

Hot brass letters and a vigilant hand –

an accurate blind impression.


Paint in glair with a fine brush,

lay on gold leaf, with level breath.

Tilt the light, shadows will reveal


the place to press the tool again.

Now, strike the gold – feel the title

word by word, bright in the grain.


Clare Best is a poet and writer with particular interests in writing body and landscape. Her poems are widely published in magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine, Magma, Resurgence, Agenda and The Warwick Review. A chapbook, Treasure Ground (HappenStance 2009), resulted from her residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire fens. Breastless – poems from the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts with photographs by Laura Stevens – came out with Pighog in 2011, and Clare’s first full collection, Excisions (Waterloo Press 2011) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. She teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex.

Kay Syrad’s website:


CHCI Health Humanities Summer Institute 2016

8 Jun, 16 | by cquigley



Sunday 26 – Monday 27 June 2016, 10.00

CHCI Health Humanities Summer Institute 2016

Health Humanities Now

Anatomy Lecture Theatre & Museum, King’s Building, Strand Campus

2 day Conference which aims to gather scholars and practitioners from all over the world in the burgeoning field of the health humanities. By showcasing some of the most innovative and pioneering work taking place in the health humanities today.

This event is open to all, the Standard Delegate rate is £90 with the option to book the conference dinner for £10.

Student Rate is £40 with the option to book the conference dinner for £10.

Registration is required via King’s e-store, you can book your place here

We do hope you will be able to join us.

Centre for the Humanities and Health

Arts & Humanities Research Institute

Faculty of Arts & Humanities

King’s College London

Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 7963



PCMD Medical Humanities Conference 2016

18 Apr, 16 | by cquigley


Ian Fussell

Community Sub Dean UEMS


In 2002, The Peninsula Medical School (now Peninsular College of Medicine and Dentistry (PCMD)) became the first UK medical school to integrate the medical humanities as core curriculum.

Every year since, year four students engage in a six-month project alongside and mentored by an artist. The culmination of the project is a conference organised by the students displaying and presenting their work.

The work thus created has become increasingly sophisticated over the years, as evidenced by the 2016 conference that just took place in Truro (April 2016). In fact, it was probably the highest quality of work seen to date and would not be out of place at any international medical humanities conference.

The morning session was opened by Professor Alan Bleakly, the current President of the Association for Medical Humanities and a leading world expert in the field. This was a particularly poignant conference as 2016 is the final year that it will be run under the auspices of PCMD following the disaggregation of Exeter and Plymouth Medical Schools. It may have been this, or the unsettled future that the current students are facing, that gave this year’s presentations an extra edge.

Following a superb talk by Alan that encouraged a political voice, we were treated to three songs written and performed by “Dull to Percussion”, a band formed in the “Medical School of Rock” module. The songs were indeed political, satirising the split between the universities and included a protest song aimed squarely at our Health Secretary. Search iTunes or Spotify to listen for yourself, and watch “A Song for a Hunt” go viral.

The day was then jam-packed and it was impossible to experience all that was on offer. The range of skill and talent was breathtaking. We were lectured on the human cost of the western desire for sweetness by students from the anthropology module, and invited to debate “Do Christians make better doctors” by the Christian ethics students. This year a number of new Special Study Units (SSUs) were run. They were also extremely good and included a collaboration with Truro’s Hall for Cornwall team.

The students worked at the theatre, but more impressively wrote a play on mental health in medical students. We were treated to a premiere performance – “Permission to be Human” should be performed at every medical school in the country. There was also a monologue by a shy mature student who helped us understand alcoholism and PTSD in war veterans. The mood was lifted by a hilarious stand up routine; how can dislocating your shoulder be so funny?!

There were a number of writing modules, including poetry. The audience was encouraged to write poems in a short workshop. Another new module was “Writing the Knife”, which generated superb short reflections on memorable clinical incidents. One piece called “Quayside” was outstanding and deservedly won a prize. Read it here and add your comments.

There was so much more to the students’ work, and this short piece cannot cover everything. However, I do want to mention a some other excellent pieces: working with clay exploring the professional masks doctors wear; pottery boxes representing the mess that doctors get into as they progress through their careers; moving and uncomfortable films that depicted a child’s journey through a hospital; the doctors strike shown as a frightening political movement; dopamine photography; a project on how we smell; and life drawing in conjunction with Falmouth Art School. At the end of the day we were “kettled” into a small room, and forced to party…

The aim of this SSU is to develop student’s tolerance to ambiguity. But the SSU achieves much more than this: it helps students develop a community of practice; it also fosters development of resilience and peer support; and importantly, the students have fun while exploring other perspectives on life and illness. I am extremely proud of our medical students and feel very privileged to work with them in this way. I hope that both Exeter and Plymouth continue with medical humanities in their developing curricula.




The Reading Room: Short-list for the 2016 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine

22 Mar, 16 | by cquigley


Fragility of the human form: short-list for the 2016 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine


The Hippocrates Initiative for Poetry and Medicine – winner of the 2011 Times Higher Education Award for Innovation and Excellence in the Arts – is an interdisciplinary venture that investigates the synergy between medicine, the arts and health.

Poets from New York and the UK are among the finalists for this year’s prize. Short-listed in the Open Category are Owen Lewis, child psychiatrist and poet from New York, and from the UK poets Anne Ryland from Berwick-on-Tweed and Jane McLaughlin from London.

Competing for the UK NHS 2016 Hippocrates first prize are paediatric cardiologist Denise Bundred from Camberley, former consultant haematologist Karen Patricia Schofield from Crewe and GP Chris Woods from Bury.

Find out more about the shortlisted poets.

The judges also agreed 16 commendations in the NHS category, and 17 commendations in the Open International category from Australia, France, England, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and the USA.

Find out more about the commended poets.

The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony in London on Friday April 15, 2016.

Check out the Medical Humanities poetry section here.



Ageing, Embodiment and the Self: A One-Day AHRC Symposium

13 Jan, 16 | by cquigley

The Reading Room: ePatients Conference, Queen’s University Belfast

12 Aug, 15 | by cquigley



The Medical, Ethical and Legal Repercussions of Blogging and

Micro-Blogging Experiences of Illness and Disease


Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities

Queen’s University Belfast, 11-12 September 2015

The provisional programme for this conference is now available:

Friday 11th September

11.00 – 11.30         Registration

11.30 – 11.45          Welcome

11.45 – 12.45          Keynote 1:

                                      Anne-Marie Cunningham (Cardiff University)

                                    Learning with and from epatients

1.45 – 3.45               Panel 1:

                                      Chair: Nathan Emmerich (QUB)

Amy Brown (SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, New York): Grounding the Relationship Between Families and Physicians in a Digital Community: A Case Study

Columba Quigley (Reading Room Editor, Medical Humanities): The ePatient and Stories of Illness

Kristen Larson (Duke University): Autopathography and Online Community: Applying Biovalue to Understand the Lisa Adams Controversy

Yewande Okuleye (University of Leicester): You call it Marijuana and I call it Medical Cannabis: Online Identity Construction and Illness Narratives from the epatient/activist Perspective.

4.00 – 5.40              Panel 2:

                                       Chair: Pascal McKeown (QUB)

Maggie Bennett and Deborah Coleman (QUB): Cultivating Compassion through Analysis of Online Patient Narratives

Sylvia Hübel (Interfaculty Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Law, University of Leuven, Belgium): IVF Blogs and Online Forums as Sites of Patient Empowerment and Moral Agency

Angela Kennedy (independent researcher): Power and Conflict between Doctors and Patients: the Case of the ME Community

5.45                            Drinks Reception, The Naughton Gallery

7.00                           Conference Dinner, Deanes at Queen’s

Saturday 12th September

 10.15 – 11.45          Panel 3:

                                      Chair: Paul Murphy (QUB)

Rebecca J. Hogue (University of Ottawa, Canada): Cancer Blogging – A Survivor’s Story

Marie Ennis-O’Connor (Digital Media Strategist and Health Blogger): Connecting and Protecting: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Online Disclosure

Anne Lawlor (22q11 Ireland Support Group): Social Media as a Virtual Lifeline: A Support-Group Perspective of the Issues

12.00 – 1.00             Keynote 2:

                                     Julia Kennedy (Falmouth University)

                                     In Our Blood: Mapping Multiple Narrative Accounts of Leukaemia Online

 1.45 – 3.15               Panel 4:

Victoria Betton (University of Leeds and mHealthHabitat programme director (NHS)): Mental Health Discourses in Social Networking Sites

Ida Milne (QUB): A Rash of Reaction: the e-parent and the 2015 Measles Epidemics

Sally Burch (Patient Blogger at “Just ME”): The Use of Patient Blogs as a Care Resource


The deadline for registration is August 14, 2015.

Further information can be found here:

Medical humanities blog homepage

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