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Eating yourself sick in pregnancy: why it would be NICE to understand the historical context

1 Aug, 10 | by Deborah Kirklin

Earlier this month the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence produced very welcome guidance  for all of those who have a direct or indirect role in, and responsibility for women who are pregnant or who are planning a pregnancy and mothers who have had a baby in the last 2 years.

As a GP I welcome this guidance. Like everyone working in healthcare in the UK today I am acutely aware of the importance of this issue. Nevertheless I find myself asking where, amongst all the important and interesting information in this guidance is the historical context for the nutritional status of pregnant women? How, in other words, did we move, within a matter of two or three generations, from a time when the health of babies and mothers were threatened by insufficient calories and nutrition to a time when a surfeit is now the problem? more…

Believing Without Seeing

11 Jan, 10 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Esref Armagan was born blind in Ankara, Turkey. He has now become a famous artist due to his sheer talent and also due to certain significant and unusual reasons. His art displays the colour, vividness, light, dark, imagination and perspective that we are used to considering as the gifts of sight. Esref is changing the meaning of what it is to see the world.

Whilst taking part in a documentary with the University of Toronto, he exclaimed: “why would I want to see when I can see so much more with my hands?” These words fall upon us at a time where medicine is advancing through producing images of our body that otherwise we are blind to, such as fMRI, X-Rays, CT scans. We are looking into how we can perceive the human body in its finest detail. Our direction of what it means to achieve the fullest understanding of the internal physical world of the body is engaged with finding what is hidden. more…

The beauty of the beast that is Australia: unforgiving and unforgettable

10 Jun, 09 | by Deborah Kirklin

Half a lifetime ago I went to Australia for my medical elective, a joyous interlude just before finals that allows doctors-to-be to savour, for one last time, the freedom of life as a student. Eight weeks is barely time to get over the jetlag let alone to adjust to the stark and breathtaking landscapes that unfurl in any journey across this large and mystifying country. Yet long enough to leave the lasting impression that no matter how impressive the delights of Sydney and Melbourne and Australia’s other cities and towns, this is a country only a blink away from submission to its own awesome forces of nature.


Henderson’s Equation: embracing science, facilitating human flourishing

29 Dec, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

I’m fond of referring, in talks and in discussions about medical professionalism, to the midnight meal. It’s a metaphor that I borrow from Dr Jerome Lowenstein, a friend and colleague who wrote an essay of the same name. In that essay he recalls a time when the medical team would meet in the hospital restaurant, in the middle of the night, to deal with the emotional leftovers of the day. With shift working, and an increasingly busy and technological approach to medicine, there is all too often neither time nor space for a midnight meal. He suggests that medical humanities might offer an alternative way, create an alternative space, to pick over the remains of the day and so be ready to face another day.

The essay is simply and beautifully written, and so I was pleased to be given a copy of Dr Lowenstein’s first novel, Henderson’s Equation, to read. Pleased but also a little daunted, because I have to admit that physiology was never my strong point. more…

Rubens and the art of observation: a dying clinical skill?

15 Dec, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

Peter Paul Rubens. Helene Fourment in a fur wrap (Het Pelsken). c.1635. Oil on panel, 176x83 cm. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Do you ever really look at your patients? I mean really, really, look, so carefully that you’re in danger of making both of you feel uncomfortable? And if you do, do you look with the eye of a medic, seeking to confirm or rule out certain features, or do you look-as an artist might look- with an innocent eye, open to all possibilities and closed to none? 

If, like me, you take it for granted that artists have always been better than the average person at seeing what’s actually there, rather than what they are expecting to see, then  you might be surprised to read a recent paper in Medical Humanities by Abastado and Chemla which suggests otherwise. more…

Understanding childhood obesity:the Wellcome Trust film and video archive goes digital

13 Dec, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

I’m grateful to Christy Henshaw for letting me know about an exciting new project from the Wellcome Trust. So far about 100 films from the Trust’s vast archive of film and video have been digitalised and can be viewed by anyone, free-of-charge, on-line. 

A brief glance at the titles led me to a fascinating insight into how the British Medical Association, in 1967, tried to engage with the public about growing concerns regarding childhood obesity. The way in which the issue of childhood obesity is framed in the film- including the language used and the overt and unashamed signaling that allowing a child to be fat both stigmatises them and threatens their health- will surely enrich the thinking of contemporary medical humanities scholars interested in the so-called obesity epidemic.

To see this clip click on the link below.

Cruel Kindness

The list of available titles in the Wellcome Library Catalogue can be seen by following the link below. This resource will shortly be available via Flash Player which should make access easier.

Full details, from Christy, follow.


Mad, bad or simply sad: a medical humanities look at mental health legislation

1 Dec, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

Vincent Van Gogh,' Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889.'London, Courtauld Institute Gallery.

Vincent Van Gogh. Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889. London, Courtauld Institute Gallery.

This month the Mental Health Act (MHA) 2007 came into force in England and Wales. This Act, which amends the MHA 1983, is just the latest in a series of Acts of Parliament that form part of an on-going search for the fine balance between personal liberty and public safety.

The language used in these various Acts, both in their naming and in the way in which the illnesses and disorders suffered by those falling within their remit are described and defined, is interesting. The Lunacy Act 1890 talks of “lunatics, idiots and persons of unsound mind”. The Mental Deficiency Act 1913 introduced safeguards to monitor what went on in what were then termed asylums. In 1959, with the introduction of the  first incarnation of the Mental Health Act, we see perhaps the first, modest, attempt to move away from the use of language that appears to blame and diminish those affected by the Act. more…

Society for the Social History of Medicine 2008 Annual Conference: Glasgow 3-5 September 2008

15 Aug, 08 | by Deborah Kirklin

Jointly organised by the Centre for the History of Medicine at University of Glasgow and the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare, Glasgow (a research collaboration between Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Strathclyde), this conference should be of interest to all medical humanities scholars.

The focus of the conference is an engagement with historical perspectives on how health has been defined, by whom, and- importantly- the motivations and objectives informing these choices of frame. An important aim of the conference is to “engage with and critique ‘governmentality’ as a tool of analysis in the history of medicine.” The idea of medicine as an instrument of social control is of course familiar to social historians of medicine, and, as evidenced by conferences like this, continues to be both provocative and informative. By contrast, most doctors are likely to have never, at least knowingly, encountered this way of thinking about the nature and purpose of medicine. more…

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