Conference Reports: Accounts of Illness in Historical and Modern Texts

‘Accounts of Illness in Historical and Modern Texts: Exploring Methods in Medical Humanities Research Across the Disciplines’, University of Oxford, 27th June 2017

By Anna McFarlane

The ‘Accounts of Illness’ conference was organised by Professor Katherine Southwood of Oxford University as a means of understanding the different methodologies used across the disciplines that intersect in the field of the medical humanities. Dr Southwood hosted the conference through the Oxford Research Centre in the Medical Humanities (TORCH) to enrich her own research in the field of theology, particularly working on the Book of Job as an illness narrative from the Bible.

Dr Jeff Aronson opened the day with a digital humanities approach in a paper entitled ‘Autopathography: A Patient’s Tale’, building on work he has been doing for a number of years identifying and cataloguing death narratives. Dr Catherine Kelsey also argued for the importance of illness narratives, taking a Foucauldian approach to draw attention to the pulmonary illnesses suffered by ex-miners in the UK, while I took the opportunity to share the findings of the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project at the University of Glasgow while opening a conversation based on my upcoming research on science fiction as a means of discussing the monstrous aspect of pregnancy. Historical approaches came from Professor Elizabeth Hsu and Dr Hannah Newton who discussed the difficulties in interpreting the symptoms and emotions associated with illness in Ancient China and early-modern England respectively. Dr Therese Feiler provided a quick history of medicine in critical theory, and accounts of illness narratives in contemporary literature came from Professor Olivia Vázquez-Medina and Dr Lisa Mullen, who spoke on Jenny Diski’s memoirs.

Drawing together scholars from Oxford University alongside others from across the UK, this one-day conference showcased the very different work in the medical humanities happening in university departments, stimulating some fascinating conversations about methodologies in the field and what its future direction might be with particular notice in question and answer sessions focusing on the ways in which funders might be shaping research priorities and what illness narratives can do for patients, doctors, and the wider public.

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