Material Medicine: Objects, and Bodies, AMH 2019, Plymouth, UK

Conference Report by Desmond O’Neill

After a gap of some years I was delighted to catch a meeting of the UK Association of Medical Humanities, even if only for one day. It was my first encounter with Plymouth, where standing at the lush green of Plymouth Hoe offers disconcertingly different views: either looking to sea over the beautiful and historic bay, or landwards to a modern town centre which has not aged well.

The meeting was organized well, with the choice among the parallel sessions as ever challenging due to the variety offered. However, the abstract book provided a helpful compensation for the sessions which I could not attend, indicating fresh vistas and approaches to the medical humanities.

My exposure during the day ran from medical education (of which more anon), surgical instruments in Thracian culture, exploring textures and materials for prostheses for amputees, a medical student’s reflections during an attachment to an abortion service, a critical/analytical approach to menstrual hygiene (a multi-sensory presentation inclusive of delicious poppy-seed flavoured cookies in the shape of the female reproductive system) and a cinematic exploration of childbirth in an unsympathetic environment.

I followed this with a delightful session on humbug and bullshit in medical education, succeeded by an exuberant presentation by marathon runner academics on ideas of injuries, pain, social expectations and the theatricality of the event, but with no mention of Sacher-Masoch! I will admit that my scope of intellectual acquaintance was stretched beyond its usually permissive elasticity by the presentation on how Peirce’s tripartite idea of a sign (interpretant), object and representamen can be applied in a medical context.

The final presentation of the day was a very affecting account of the death of the presenter’s mother, with linkage to a wide source of reflective source materials but also a focus on the airway protector as an intrusive material object.

The only low point was a presentation on medical humanities as a rescue mechanism for an inhumane and objectivised medical education system. Given that the first encounter in our medical school with a human is with a baby, and not a cadaver, reflective of the changes in many medical curricula, this had a feeling of fighting old and unproductive battles. It was as if the wise and witty words of Ed Pellegrino, a pioneer in the medical humanities, had not been heeded: that medical humanism had achieved the status of a salvation theme which can absolve the perceived ‘sins’ of modern medicine, the list of which was ‘long, varied and often contradictory’. Also missing were any comparators, such as the nature and quality of training of other healthcare workers such as nurses, or indeed the extent to which the teaching environment in arts and humanities might be shown to be kinder, more humane and insightful.

For many in the medical humanities, the more important focus is on research and scholarship, and the development of a body of work which provides deeper and more meaningful insights into what it means to be human, well, ill and experience the health system, a vital element of the epistemology of healthcare.

An emerging element is the extent to which there is joint working between scholars in healthcare and the arts and humanities. Without getting enmeshed in the narcissism of small differences between multi-/inter-/trans-disciplinary working, our own presentation was of a bibliometric analysis of joint working papers published in two medical humanities journals over a decade. A key finding from this was that authorship in medical humanities remains largely the domain of single authors, with only a tiny majority acknowledging other collaborators, suggesting that we are far as yet from models of joint working.

A cursory overview of the abstract book echoed this trend, with over 80% of the abstracts assigned to a single author, although some more collaboration may have been signalled during presentations, as was indeed the case for one of the presentations that I attended.

So, overall, a worthwhile experience, and I look forward to the next meeting in June 2020 in the University of Limerick, Ireland, home to a vibrant Arts and Health research grouping and a substantive medical history project. It would be interesting to see if the organizers could promote a more pro-active signalling of joint working through authorship and acknowledgements in the abstract process, as such collaborative engagement is vital to the continued growth of the medical humanities.

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