Off Sick; Narratives of Illness Past and Present

Scholars from the universities of Glamorgan and Cardiff are currently breaking new ground in the Medical Humanities with the Off Sick project, writes Dr Richard Marsden. This research initiative, led by Dr Martin Willis and Dr Keir Waddington, puts a new twist on the well-known concept of the ‘illness narrative’. It focuses not on the people who actually suffer from illness, but instead on those who support and care for them. In this vein the project team is currently gathering stories from carers across the South Wales area.

This is very much an interdisciplinary project, which aims to explore not only how carers construct and define their experiences through stories in the present day, but also how they did so in previous decades and centuries. Moreover, Off Sick also brings in comparative material from the literary sphere, including fictional accounts, life-writing and poetry.

The peg on which this work is hung is the encounter with ‘medical institutions’. Indeed, the very idea of the illness narrative arose partly in response to a tendency for clinicians to neglect the experiences of the patient, seeing them instead in de-personalized terms as biological problems to be solved with science. Illness narratives are often perceived as a means of reversing this trend and re-empowering the patient.

For that reason, the stories that Off Sick is particularly interested in deal with visits to hospitals and other clinical settings. However, it is the ways in which carers and family members turn their experiences of such encounters into narratives that is the real crux of this research. This emphasis on the stories of those around illness, together with its holistic and comparative approach to contemporary, historical and literary materials, is what makes Off Sick so innovative.

The project’s findings will be showcased through academic presentations and publications, and also through an exhibition (scheduled for June 2011) which is aimed not at academics but at individuals and groups whose lives have been affected by illness and who have their own stories to tell about it. In addition, Off Sick runs a lively, varied and ongoing programme of events and public talks drawing on the expertise of literary scholars, historians, social scientists and medical practitioners.

For more information on the project you can visit the Off Sick website (, join the Off Sick Facebook group ( or follow Off Sick on Twitter ( Alternatively please contact the project’s Research Assistant, Dr Richard Marsden, on

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