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“The Reading Room”: Book Editor Role at Medical Humanities

5 Feb, 14 | by Deborah Bowman

It is an exciting time for Medical Humanities and, as part of its evolution, the Book Section is changing and expanding. After the next issue, the Book Section will become “The Reading Room” and appear in both in the hard copy of the journal and on the Blog.

Claire Elliott, who has looked after the Book Section so well, has decided that it is time for her to step down. We are enormously grateful to her for her exceptional commitment and careful stewardship.

We are now seeking someone to take on the role of Editor of The Reading Room and to join us on the Editorial Team. We are open-minded about who might best suit this role, but we are seeking someone who has an overview of the discipline, an enthusiasm for reading (both academic and non-academic works) and an eye for the innovative. The Editor of The Reading Room will contribute both editorially and creatively. He or she will work closely with the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editors, Film and Blog Editors to produce a Journal and Blog that are original, thought-provoking and engaging. Unfortunately, the remuneration for the role is limited to a nominal honorarium and reasonable expenses. However, it is a role that, we believe, has much to offer any curious bibliophile.

If you would like to be considered for the role, please send:

  • A cover email introducing yourself.
  • A brief statement (no more than 200 words) explaining why you would like to be the Editor of The Reading Room and what you would hope to contribute.
  • A short CV (no more than two pages of A4).

Please send your application to Professor Deborah Bowman ( by Monday 17th February 2014.

If you have any queries or would like to discuss the role informally before submitting an application, you are welcome to contact Deborah at the same email address.

To Have Been What I Always Am, So Changed From What I Was: Reflections on Altered States and Beckett

30 Jan, 14 | by Deborah Bowman


London is currently home to productions of four Samuel Beckett plays. A trilogy – Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby – performed by the extraordinary Lisa Dwan, is at the Royal Court Theatre in advance of a transfer to the Duchess Theatre. Across town, Juliet Stevenson takes on the role of Winnie in Happy Days at the Young Vic Theatre. Both productions are preoccupied with altered states. And, for anyone interested in the health humanities, the concept of the altered state is unavoidable and fascinating.

Not I, the first play in the Royal Court trilogy, plunges its audience into a darkness that is unremittingly absolute. Every glimmer of residual light is extinguished and the effect is devastating. There is nothing between us and ourselves. No distracting or reassuring visual clues that we have a place in the world. All that remains is the blackness. We wait until our eyes adapt – for surely they will adapt – isn’t that what eyes do? Isn’t adaptation the essence of humankind? But they don’t. We don’t. It is inescapable: our altered state.

And then, looming above us in a beam of light, is the mouth. We cannot help but focus. It commands our focus. This disembodied mouth. All that there is in the room is the darkness, the mouth and our thoughts. And so it begins. Words, sounds, glimpses of sentences tumble out of those bright red lips – a life pouring forth, demanding to be heard. At first we can’t make out the words. Some are familiar, but some a nonsense. Is it the speed? Is it the accent? We are concentrating so hard; why can’t we understand? And still the words cascade into the darkness and still we search for meaning. We revert to the comfort of clinical categorisation: this is logorrhea. But how pointless that seems – what is the value of naming but never knowing?

And still the mouth moves and the waves of sound wash over the auditorium. We sense damage. We intuit harm. We no longer need the details – we can feel it. In our altered state, all communication convention is overthrown and we discover it doesn’t matter. If we persist in attending to another, then we will make a connection.

In contrast to the claustrophobic darkness of Not I, the theatre in Happy Days is assaulted by light. It is brutal and unforgiving in its reach. Under the burning brightness, we find Winnie buried up to her breasts. As with the plays in the trilogy, we know nothing of how she came to be here. Beckett is not concerned with causality – it is enough simply to meet a person where and how they are. So, we encounter Winnie, trapped in the earth for reasons we will never understand nor need to understand.

Winnie’s altered state is physically, emotionally and metaphorically concerned with what lies beneath. The audience too, whilst looking only at the top half of her body in an unchanging set, begins to grapple with the unseen and the unexpressed. As Winnie digs deeper into the bag she treasures, her memories, hopes and identity emerge in the form of mundane, and practical objects. Her failed efforts to engage Willie – to share her altered state with another – require her to dig ever deeper into her self. The increasingly brittle humour with which she meets her predicament discomforts us – as altered states so often do.

When Act 2 opens, Winnie’s state is further altered and she is buried up to her neck. All that is visible now is her head. Her hair is disheveled and her teeth rotting. She is herself and yet, so crushingly and irrevocably altered. Her decline is physical and existential. She is in pain. She is unsure whether she is alone because she can no longer turn to see Willie. She can no longer dig deep – and what lies beneath is suffocating her.

As Willie painstakingly crawls his way across the earth, upwards towards Winnie and the gun that rests in front of her, the potential narratives flood our minds. His intentions are ambiguous to the last. But this is not a state that ends. The lights dim and the actors remain frozen on the verge of change. A change we can imagine, but cannot control. An uncertain, but unavoidable, change that mirrors the shifting and complex experiences and perceptions of those altered states that, in other contexts, we call ‘illness’.

Not I, Footfalls and Rockaby is at the Duchess Theatre from 3-15 February 2014

Happy Days is at The Young Vic Theatre until 8 March 2014


Call for Papers: Fashionable Diseases: Medicine, Literature and Culture, ca. 1660-1832

28 Jan, 14 | by Deborah Bowman

An International Interdisciplinary Conference

Newcastle and Northumbria Universities

3rd – 5th July 2014


Keynote speakers include:
Professor Helen Deutsch, ‘Diseases of Writing’

University of California, Los Angeles

Author of Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture


Dr David Shuttleton, ‘The Fashioning of Fashionable Diseases in the Eighteenth Century’

University of Glasgow

Author of Smallpox and the Literary Imagination


Between 1660 and 1832 books such as Cheyne’s English Malady and Adair’s Essays on Fashionable Diseases created a substantial debate on the relationship between fashion and sickness, linking melancholy, the vapours, nervousness, gout, consumption and many other conditions with the elite and superior sensibility. This conference aims to include voices from both within the social and medical elite and beyond, and to look at diseases that have not previously been examined in this context and at what can be learned from ‘unfashionable’ illnesses. It also aims to consider not only diseases associated with social prestige, but also with the medical critique of fashionable luxurious lifestyles, and the debate on ‘imaginary’ diseases. The role of culture in creating, framing and spreading conceptions of fashionable disease will also be considered.


Proposals for papers and three-person panels are welcome on topics related to fashionable diseases, including:

  • Patient experience
  • Consumer society and the ‘medical marketplace’
  • Culture (literature, music, etc) and fashionable disease
  • Geographical meanings – travel literature and spa culture
  • Morality, politics and medicine in critiques of fashionable lifestyles
  • Satire, stigma, fashion
  • ‘Imaginary’ diseases
  • Class, gender, race, religion, etc
  • Unfashionable diseases


We are also keen to receive proposals offering interdisciplinary and internationally comparative perspectives, or relating eighteenth-century to contemporary fashionable diseases.

Please submit abstracts (max. 250 words) and a brief biography (max 100 words) to by 28 February 2014


Guest Piece: Joseph Ting: “Medicine Now, at the Wellcome Collection London: Obesity, The Body, Malaria and Genomes”.

14 Jan, 14 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Medicine Now, a permanent exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, presents a range of ideas about science and medicine since Sir Henry Wellcome’s death in 1936. Designed to broaden engagement with medical science beyond the narrow confines of the laboratory or clinic, Medicine Now presents a cogent multidisciplinary view of four topics, Obesity, The Body, Malaria and Genomes. These are explored through the perspective of patients, doctors, scientists and artists.


Medicine Now ranges over contemporary art, the way medicine has been perceived, and has affected the human race, in the last eighty years. The intersection between art, science and medicine is made accessible to the lay audience and there are challenging displays for the specialist visitor.



Dieting, weight consciousness, anxiety about body weight and shape and widespread hostilty to obesity are fundamental themes in contemporary life. There is tension between modern populations trying to control their weight amid unprecedented opportunities to let themselves go. [1]  John Isaacs’ two metre high “I can’t help the way I feel” (2003) comprise superhuman sized globules of cellulite perched on tiny legs (Fig 1).


This corporeal aggregate of multilobulated fat has submerged its own head, preserving its anonymity. This however has the unfair effect of diverting the viewer’s attention to the grotesquerie emanating from below the neck. A strategic overgrowth of fleshy apron over the thighs conceals the gender of the person portrayed by “I can’t help the way I feel.” Isaacs may be commenting on society’s fixation with the female form, despite obesity afflicting both sexes.


I can’t help the way I feel” could be considered the ugly embodiment of the obesity epidemic. The attention-grabbing dimpled thighs, soft bulges and doughy rolls of Isaacs’ sculpture reminds one of the difficulty the obese face in trying to not draw attention to themselves. The artist’s sympathetic contention that “the way in which the flesh grows, erupts and engulfs the body can be seen as a metaphor of the way in which we become incapacitated by the emotional landscape in which we live and over which we have little control” did little to temper my repulsion for “I can’t help the way I feel.” The impulse to ridicule, discriminate against, and publicly monitor the body shape of, the obese has its basis in the visible markers of fatness (wide hips, protruding belly, vast thighs) transgressing aesthetic standards and signalling pathology and disease. [1] My seeing fatness led to the negative reading of fat bodies. More than ever, judgements about our own and others’ worth is based on the morphological body as compared to the ideal.


The Body [Figure 1]

Anthony Gormley, a commentator for Modern Medicine, claims “the body (to be) the root of all our experience, a place where we all live and on which our consciousness depends.” The Body examines new techniques and ways of looking at our internal biological structures and function.


Medical imaging technologies play a crucial role in comtemporary medical care.  A century after Wilheim Rontgen discovered x rays, the human body is accessible to radiological techniques that enable doctors to peer inside the intact human body. To improve understanding of new technology, the visitor can sit on sound chairs to hear the views of a Professor of Medical Physics on CT scans and an ultrasonographer on antenatal ultrasound.


Anatomical objects-dissected bodies and constructed models-have aroused the interest and curiosity of lay audiences since the late fifteeth century. [2]I found the coronally-sectioned plastinated body of a standing human cadaver confronting. Michel Foucault’s vivid description of “externalising the internal” remains deeply disturbing when one imagines plastinated transparency forcing the total detachment of the body’s interior from an identifiable and skin-covered person. The sliced body brings to mind Gunther von Hagens’ Bodyworlds blockbuster that travelled the world and attracted millions of visitors. Then there was outcry protesting the moral ambiguity surrounding the display of artfully dissected human bodies for mass entertainment.  However it is hard to deny the educational value of Transparent Woman (1980), from the Stiflung Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, which allow the visitor to light up several human organs with a push button panel.


Moral objections are harder to pose with the Visible Human Project. Digitised anatomical bodies are developed from thin CT cross-sections of a standard adult male and female body, offering perpetual electronic cadavers that are able to be logged onto regardless of time or location, and facilitating the training of students and surgeons. Digital simulation comprise unmediated inscriptions of cadavers that have not been distorted by the pencil of the illustrator or the knife of the dissector. 2 However, unless the electronic form can be sculpted into a model by 3D bioprinting, tactile cues remain impossible.


The audio observations of a humanities academic seeing medical students performing anatomical dissection for the first time was most poignant as the heart was delivered into cupped hands. It brought back memories of my own tentative first encounter with our dissection group’s cadaver in the anatomy laboratory. However, The Body pays scant attention to human physiology. The finger sensor that was supposed to measure my pulse and cardiac rhythm and display this “biogram” on a touch screen failed to work. The pulse oximeter is not a new innovation, having been around for decades.



The mosquitoes used by Alastair Mackie to outline the world’s coasts on a plain white board in Mosquito Coast (2002) come from the malaria research laboratory at the Division of Cell and Molecular Biology at Imperial College London (Fig 2). The fragility of thin borders formed by a delicately assembled line of single mosquitoes belies the difficulty humans have encountered since antiquity in trying to overcome malaria’s formidable defences and superb adaptation. Mosquito Coast testifies to an army of malaria-bearing mosquitos encircling land masses and islands to symbolically entrap the world.


At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Mackie’s map puts us on notice that the malarial mosquito loaded with its most feared pathogen still commands worldwide attention. Each year millions of people die from malaria. Over vast regions, human health continues to suffer and national economies fail. Although malaria is a potent threat only in the tropics, it remains a disease without borders, with sporadic cases occuring in returning travellers and immigrants in advanced nations. The absence of national boundaries in Mosquito Coast signify the porous permeability of malaria’s distribution. Where it had not been reported previously, de novo malaria now occurs ocassionally in northern Australia. [3]


Mosquito Coast  forces the recognition that malarial mosquitos remain a robust and ancient foe that continues to shape human history worldwide. Opportunities for malaria spread around the world occur with increasing international travel and trade. Mosquitoes survive transoceanic flights in aircraft cabins and baggage compartments and are brought to distant ports in shipping containers. [4]


Mosquito Coast stimulates thinking on the the role of global climate change, congested urbanisation and environmental degradation in expanding the habitat of malaria-armed mosquitoes. We are reminded of the disrupting effects of human activity on the ecology of pathogen carrying vectors. However it is not all bad news. Mackie’s world map reminded me of satellite-aided Geographical Information Systems that employ meterological data and malaria incidence tracking to better  deliver insecticides and antimalarial. The global reference implied in Mosquito Coast urges international research to control malaria and its mosquito vectors to be as collaborative as the tightly linked mosquitoes on show.


Genomes examines the scientific study of DNA as well as its social and cultural significance. The scale of the challenge faced by the Human Genome Project is mirrored in the formidable series of books containing the first printout of whole human genome, presented at reduced font to to able to accommodate 3.4 billion units of DNA code, and neatly arranged on high shelves. High tech gene sequencing is complemented by television documentaries dealing with the human suffering inflicted by a mysterious familial disease, the genetic mechanisms of which were not known then. Even when the diagnosis of a range of genetic diseases is now possible, the prospects of replacing defective genes with curative intent remains a distant dream.




Modern Medicine more than fulfills the Wellcome Collection’s modest aim to being a “free destination for the incurably curious.” The exhibition is capable of inciting public interest in the performance of medicine in its more recent incarnations. In exploring the connections between modern medicine, life and contemporary art, visitors can achieve intriguing insights that result from the intersections between past with present; professional and lay; science, art, and society. Obesity and Body is analogous  to “looking and being looked at [judging body weight and aesthetics], and looking through [medical imaging and anatomical models]” respectively. Genome and the (plastinated) Body displays pose difficult moral and ethical challenges.


Modern Medicine is cohesively curated;  the microscopic genetic imprint of life plays an influential role in determining body shape and size, and our susceptibility to diseases such as malaria. In embedding biomedicine within an rapidly evolving historical and cultural landscape, and undertaking to explore the future direction of biomedical science, the challenge Modern Medicine faces is to maintain its contemporaneity since opening in 2007.

Figure 1



Figure 2 



1. Stearns PN. Fat history : bodies and beauty in the modern West.

New York: New York University Press: 1997.

2. van Dijck J. The transparent body : a cultural analysis of medical imaging. Seattle: University of Washington Press: 2005.

3. Hanna JN, Ritchie SA, Eisen DP et al. An outbreak of Plasmodium vivax malaria in Far North Queensland. Med J Aust 2002;180:24-28.

4. Spielman A, D’Antonio M. Mosquito : a natural history of our most persistent and deadly foe. London: Faber: 2001.

Written by Dr Joseph Ting; Adjunct Associate Professor, Faculty of Health and Social Work, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, and Senior Staff Specialist, Department of Emergency Medicine, Mater Health Services, Raymond Terrace, South Brisbane 4101. Email: 

In memory of Dr Sue Eckstein, Editor-in-Chief of Medical Humanities

2 Dec, 13 | by BMJ

It is with much sadness that we report the death of Dr Sue Eckstein, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal Medical Humanities. Sue Eckstein was an outstanding appointment. Her commitment to, and expertise in, the health humanities meant that she was the perfect person to lead the journal and we were delighted when she agreed to become Editor. In the all-too-brief time that she held the position, Sue approached her work with characteristic creativity, dedication and enthusiasm.

Sue was thoughtful and generous with all those with whom she worked. She inspired the teams with which she worked on Medical Humanities and gave meaning to the term ‘collaborative’ in her approach to working with others. The response from authors, reviewers and Editorial colleagues to the news of Sue’s death has revealed the depth of respect and affection felt by so many people for Sue.

The next issue of the journal will be dedicated to Sue.

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well (King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4) >>

Alam Anjum: Emotional Warfare: From Doctors to Patients

25 Nov, 13 | by Ayesha Ahmad


Whilst watching the film, “The Doctor”, released in the year 1991, I was struck by the same old question in my mind, whose answer I have been looking for several years that; to what extent does a doctor need to be attached or detached from their patients as persons?


Khalid Ali: From lecture halls to cinema screens: learning about the psyche through films

11 Nov, 13 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Last year, the round-up of medical humanities-related films at the London Film Festival (LFF) centred on the theme of old age. This year, to synchronise with Mental Health Day (which fell on 10th October 2013, the second of the twelve days of the LFF), the mind and its mishaps serve as our cluster-point.


Khalid Ali: Hidden crimes in stroke exposed through a camera lens A review of film “Abuse of weakness” directed by Catherine Breillat, France 2013

27 Oct, 13 | by Ayesha Ahmad

The impact of stroke on the lives of patients and their carers seen in the French film “Amour” directed by Michael Haneke was an eye opener to audience around the world, and justifying the film winning the Oscar for the best foreign film in 2012. As stroke organisations around the world celebrate the “World Stroke Day” on the 29th of October this year another French film “Abuse of weakness” tackles the trials and tribulations of life in the aftermath of a stroke.


Event: Anatomy for Life

12 Jul, 13 | by Ayesha Ahmad


Ayesha Ahmad: The Sky Surrendered Your Story, and I Held It.

9 Jul, 13 | by Ayesha Ahmad

Between the doctor and the patient, there is a void; a chasm of the unknown, territories of wild terrain, fertile for a relationship to grow, to nurture and become a healing.

The healing. The healing comes as an ending; a termination of the settlement of the pain identified by the bearer being recognised by the observer.


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