Going Global: Medical Humanities in Leeds

Following the New Generations workshop in Leeds in April 2015, New Generations Programme Members Victoria Bates and Fiona Johnstone write:

What do the diaries of British POWs in South East Asia, crusader texts, and early modern cookbooks have in common? These are all subjects currently being researched by doctoral students in Leeds’ Centre for Medical Humanities, which in April 2015 hosted the New Generations cohort for their fourth workshop (previous meetings in Durham are reported on here and here; in Glasgow here and here; and London here, here, and here).

The day began with a series of presentations from staff and students which raised a number of interesting themes across the different strands of research.


Narrative Medicine & Postcolonial Studies

Many of the research projects presented at this workshop were underpinned by the enduringly popular concept of narrative medicine, often expanding its remit beyond writing to include visual and material objects as narrative signifiers. Elizabeth Oliver’s presentation revealed how the ephemera collected by former British POWs could be as instructive for scholarship as text-based diaries and memoirs; one particularly moving example was a carefully preserved pair of chopsticks, which for its owner conjured memories of food deprivation endured in the camp.

This raised the suggestion that post-colonial texts might offer valuable opportunities for challenging concepts that have so far been assumed to be central to narrative medicine, including agency, communication and fluency of voice. Canonical texts such as Coetzee’s Foe have generated much scholarly commentary on the imposed speechlessness of marginalised people; building on this, contemporary films such as Silenced (Dong-hyuk Hwang, South Korea, 2011), set in a school for hearing-impaired children where abuses of power have been hushed up, might allow researchers to reconceptualise the notion of ‘voice’ in relation to disabilities that disrupt or prevent speech.


Medical Humanities, Post-colonial Studies, Disability Studies

The workshop generated some thought-provoking discussion regarding the relationships between medical humanities and other fields. Professor Stuart Murray, whose own research has straddled disability studies and postcolonial studies, advocated that an evolving medical humanities needs to be able to resist a dominantly European-American focus, and suggested that a closer alliance with postcolonial studies may help to achieve this. Questions for future scholarship were also raised, such as: Where do public health and postcolonial discourses collide? What is the relationship between the global and the postcolonial?

Another area of debate addressed the relationship between the medical humanities and disability studies. Their mutual antagonism arises partly from differing critical positions: while the medical humanities has typically focussed on illness and disease as states that depart from the desired ‘norm’ of full health (think of the valorisation of narrative medicine as a tool for ‘overcoming’ illness), disability studies seeks to trouble the normative concept of health, and problematizes the binary that defines those two terms. Currently, the two fields can best be defined as ‘uncomfortable allies’ with ‘health’ as the middle ground; given the recent turn towards ‘health and wellbeing’ (as opposed to a focus on its absence) within the medical humanities, perhaps it is time to begin to encourage a more productive relationship between the two?


Research strengths

The presentations revealed a number of research areas in which Leeds has particular strengths: in addition to post-colonial studies, this includes First World War studies, and medieval history. Dr Jessica Meyer spoke about Leeds’ multi-stranded interdisciplinary project, Legacies of War; her own research in this area examines the status of lower-ranking medical caregivers in relation to the gendering of care in interwar Britain. Joanna Phillips spoke about sickness and health during the crusader campaigns, her doctoral research on this topic takes a particular interest in how medieval medical theories were used by lay-people. Similarly, Giovanni Pozetti’s research addresses diet, health and identity in early modern England, investigating how medical ideas were put into social practice through cookbooks, diaries, and other forms of personal text. Finally, a presentation by Dr Iona McCleery (whose research focuses on medieval Portugal, as well as taking an interest in North and West African islands such as Madeira) reminded us of the significance of the local as well as the global: discussing her successful recent public engagement project You are What you Ate, McCleery emphasised the importance of working with local partners and communities.


Lord Brotherton

The Brotherton Library

The University of Leeds’ interest in a global approach to medical humanities also extends beyond its academic offices, particularly in its special collections at the Brotherton Library. Built on the passion for literature of chemical magnate and local philanthropist Lord Brotherton, the special collections contain 200,000 items from around the world. Many of these are of critical importance for understanding the relationship between global and local medical history, including the Liddle Collection that records the change wrought on everyday life by the First and Second World Wars.

A Glimpse into the Collections

Though the Brotherton began with the intention of collecting historic works of literature, and boasts extremely rare bindings from medieval Europe, the remit of the collection developed over time. Today, the library’s holdings go beyond formal medical history into the realm of personal comments, anecdotes and handwritten case notes such as those of Thomas Scattergood relating to cases of forensic medicine (1828–1900). Among the variety of items shown to us from the collection, many tapped into the discussions of the day on the global nature of medical history and humanities. Setting the groundwork for our later roundtable on the World Health Organisation (WHO), for example, we looked at the account of Kathleen Anne Raven (1910–99) who visited the USA to study patient care and hospital design under a WHO fellowship in the 1960s. Raven’s account not only contains her professional observations on a set of health care practices very different from those of post-war Britain, but also a wealth of detail on the culture of the USA, with the pace, food, and scale of American life a world away from what she was used to. The collection also embraces the cultural side of the medical humanities, including letters and artwork that provide an insight into the troubled mind of Branwell Brontë (1817–48).

Letter addressed from ‘Haworth, Bradford, Yorks’; with pen and ink sketch entitled ‘Our Lady of Grief’. BC MS 19c Brontë/B4/10

The so-called ‘cultural turn’ of the late-twentieth century (which led historians increasingly to examine meanings and representation through cultural sources and artefacts) has also been a ‘material turn’, which the University of Leeds also embraces with its Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Established in 2007, the museum demonstrates the value of objects for understand local and global histories of medicine. From objects used within Freudian therapy sessions, to Francis Galton’s way of demonstrating the ‘normal’ distribution through a ‘bean machine’ using ball bearings, the collection shows the value of engaging with the materiality of the history of medicine, science and technology. These objects show how knowledge was produced locally and disseminated globally through material culture as well as textbooks, literature and even art.



Changing Cultural Contexts of Public Health: WHO 2012

The workshop concluded with a discussion facilitated by Nils Feitje, currently on secondment from the Wellcome Trust to the World Health Organisation. Recent changes in the language used by the WHO foregrounds an increased emphasis on the cultural and social contexts of health, as well as a new focus on ‘the life course approach’ and ‘wellbeing’ (rather than simply the absence of disease). There are clear opportunities for the medical humanities here, particularly in terms of responding to and critiquing official health advice through close consideration of its socially and culturally constructed biases. Picking up on themes from earlier in the day, the discussion turned once again to the notion of ‘voice’ as crucial to the future of a global medical humanities whose task must involve attending to a plurality of voices, particularly to unheard stories and lost or forgotten narratives, perhaps those of minorities or migrant populations, women and children. Researchers at Leeds have made a robust start in this area: it will be interesting to follow the relationship between medical humanities and global health as it develops in the near future.





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