Richard Hurley: The two cultures collide – medicine meets the arts in Dublin

Richard HurleyLast week I met artists, musicians, poets, doctors, academics, therapists, nurses, and others with an interest in how the arts can help doctors hone their practice and improve patients’ experiences of healthcare. Coinciding with the 300th anniversary of Trinity College Dublin’s medical school, we were at a conference about “narratives of health and illness across the lifespan,” where I spoke about the BMJ’s coverage of the medical humanities, particularly in the Views and Reviews section, which I look after.

Others gave stimulating talks on topics as varied as the depiction of pregnancy in film and literature; how “aesthetic deprivation” in hospitals can be reversed; and how ageing affected the writing of P G Wodehouse, George Bernard Shaw, and Iris Murdoch. Ian Wilson, composer in residence at a stroke unit, performing his new work, Bewitched, and a stroke survivor telling his story were particularly moving.

Old age was a recurring theme. I learnt that older people are no more likely to experience depression than any other age group; Matisse’s seemingly youthful collages were produced in his 80s; and Okinawa in Japan has the greatest proportion of centenarians in the world.

Stigmatisation of older people and failure to appreciate the benefits that older age brings are widespread, argued Desmond O’Neill, a geriatrician and stroke physician in Dublin, organiser of the conference, and prolific BMJ contributor (read an article based on his talk). The Christmas 2009 BMJ study that shows rampant ageism in the Economist got a mention. And I wish I’d watched last week’s The Apprentice before the conference: the attitudes toward older age were shocking.

Trinity College Dublin has a rich literary tradition, as home to Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, and the famous Book of Kells, which tells the gospel stories on beautifully illustrated calfskin, dating from about 800 AD. Upstairs, among the books and busts of the exquisite Long Room, is a temporary collection relating to the regulation of doctors in Ireland and medicine’s development as an academic discipline at the college. I saw the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath, who stood more than two metres tall and whose DNA is being used in a national study of gigantism.

The college also houses Dublin’s revered Science Gallery. Muiris Houston reviewed a previous show in which all the artworks incorporated living tissue. The current exhibition, HUMAN+, is an engrossing but fanciful look at how future technology might improve the human experience (read Desmond O’Neill’s review). I particularly liked the idea of the Euthanasia Coaster, a rollercoaster “engineered to humanely—with elegance and euphoria—take the life of a human being.” The pieces on cochlear implants and the demise of Deaf communities were poignant, and the parallel piece on retinal stimulation for those with sight loss predicts a bright future.

I also caught a dramatisation of Dracula in the college, Bram Stoker’s alma mater, about which Birte Twisselmann has written for our Medical Classics series.

Richard Hurley, deputy magazine editor with responsibility for the Views and Reviews section