An Interdisciplinary Alliance that Matters: Medical Humanities

Anna M. Elsner and Monika Pietrzak-Franger, eds., Literature and Medicine (Cambridge University Press, 2024. ISBN-13 978-1009300070).
Book Review by Burcu Alkan

Medical humanities has gained extensive attention in the past decade and is now an institutionally established interdisciplinary field. Yet, historically speaking, literature and medicine were not quite so separate in the first place. As one of the contributors of the present volume, James Morland, writes, “throughout the eighteenth century, a well-respected man of medicine was also often a man of letters, writing prose and poetry.”1 Both practices have shared a relationship to the human experiences of health and illness and both were a part of the intellectual realm, often related to one another. In a way, then, the development of medical humanities as a specific field is not just a contemporary excursion into interdisciplinarity but a return to home, back to the interrelated quality of being human.

Institutionally, beginning with medical history, bioethics of medicine, and medical education, and then branching out to representational studies, the encounters between medicine and humanities have diversified over the years. Eventually becoming a critical concept and interdisciplinary methodology, humanistic inquiry into medicine has proven invaluable not only in discussions of health and illness within literary and cultural studies, but also in cross-disciplinary debates in postcolonial and gender studies, environmental and digital humanities, as well as in critiques of social and economic policymaking. Comprising three parts and twenty-one chapters, Literature and Medicine provides the reader with a broad perspective on how medicine and literature work together and why this interdisciplinary alliance matters.

Part 1, “Origins: Histories,” focuses on the entanglements between literature and medicine, with chapters on ancient (Thumiger), medieval (Crocker), early modern (Radden), modern (Krienke), and contemporary (Gibbs) examples. This temporal perspective not only reveals historical links, but also emphasizes the organic bond between the two seemingly disparate realms. Then again, their separation is a modern phenomenon in the first place. As Allan Thiher writes in Revels in Madness, “The world of German romanticism was the last time, in our history, where doctors and poets, philosophers and scientists—often one and the same person—shared a unity of thought.”2 It was modernity’s forceful momentum that pushed science and humanities apart in a drive to establish (territorial) boundaries, veering away from the earlier intellectual holism of the body, the mind, and the soul.

Part 2, “Developments: Forms,” looks at the forms and formalisms within medical humanistic inquiry. Key points in the chapters include questions of who tells the stories of illness and well-being and how they do so. Wilson and Allitt bring attention to patient-writers, who articulate powerful personal experiences, as well as to the distance between the language of the patient and that of the physician. Morland, Hurwitz, and Eison examine physicians’ narratives of illness and well-being, their various methods of telling, and the different perspectives of healthcare anecdotes. Last but not least, Billington, Sugiera, and Myers discuss the formalism of literature itself, looking beyond narrative expressions of illness and well-being to performances and graphic medicine. Each chapter presents forms of interdisciplinarity made possible through the approaches and practices of medical humanities, as epitomized in Stark’s piece.

Part 3, “Applications: Politics,” comprises chapters that explore the politics of and within the field. While Howell and Sengupta bring in the postcolonial perspective through the literature and politics of malaria in the Indian context, Bourdeau discusses the class-related representations of illness and healthcare in French literature. Being relatively diverse in terms of the selection of literary traditions, part 3 also includes discussions on bioethics and biocapitalism in Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K (Johnston) and formulations of disability in Stephen Kuusisto’s poetry (Mintz). Zimmermann and Gefen look at the narratives of illness and care, the former focusing on narrativity in experiences of illness and the latter at literary narrative’s therapeutic potential in the form of writing as care. The book closes with the results of interviews conducted by Woods and Rákóczi, who reflect upon the state of medical humanities as a field and comment on its potentials and its problems, as well as its present and future.

The essays collected in this volume provide a broad perspective on the possibilities and the potentials of medical humanities. The chapters exemplify both the interdisciplinary strength of the field and the critical importance of this interdisciplinarity through their variety of perspectives, methodologies, and thematic accents. As emphasized in the “Afterword,” the implications of working within the post-COVID world render the field and the positions promoted in the book highly relevant and vital.

Although this volume includes a diverse range of positions and approaches, it reflects the geographic and cultural lacunae so common in volumes of such broad scope. Analyses from different linguistic traditions outside of the Anglosphere exist; however, this multitude is still mainly representative of the Global North. A functioning collaboration between the two socioeconomic worlds is yet to establish a strong foothold in the field, even though similarly strong works have come out from the Global South, both within and beyond postcolonial studies.


Burcu Alkan is a fellow of the Europe in the Middle East – the Middle East in Europe programme at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. She is a literary scholar who works in the field of medical humanities with a focus on psychiatry and literature.



[1] James Morland, “Physician-Poets and Vitalist Theories of Life,” 138.

[2] Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 182.

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