Australasian Health and Medical Humanities: Work-in-Progress Series

The Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network introduces its Work-in-Progress seminar series, reflecting on papers about the stethoscope from the first session

The Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network, founded in June 2021, recently launched a new virtual seminar series, designed to enable members to share projects and papers as “works in progress.” This series is intended to provide a more informal forum in which members of the network can discuss new work still in development, and receive feedback in a supportive environment. As the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network is still very new, this series is also designed to introduce members of the Network to the range of work being undertaken in this field, and to encourage potential collaboration between its members.

In Australia, as elsewhere, as the pandemic has continued to disrupt travel and the safety of face-to-face events in Australia, virtual series like this one are important for our community, improving access for a wider and more geographically dispersed range of members to meet and discuss their work than would otherwise by the case.

The inaugural WIP seminar featured new work by Dr Melissa Dickson, currently a Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham and Visiting Fellow at the University of Queensland. Dr Dickson’s paper, “Tuning in with the Stethoscope in the Nineteenth Century,” provided Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network members the opportunity to hear work in development from one of our UK-based colleagues, drawing on her current book manuscript.

Her presentation focused on the cultural history and early literary representations of the stethoscope at its moment of emergence in the medical profession. In its gradual adoption by medical practitioners across Europe and America, the stethoscope, a powerful symbol of modern medical practice marked an important shift in the Western history of listening. The inner soundscape of the human body – an invisible realm largely beyond the range of the human ear – was brought into medical and more general cultural awareness, as both doctors and patients struggled to conceptualise and to make meaning of that realm.

Melissa argued that, in Britain, although the stethoscope provided new medical insights into the workings of the body, it was a source not only of practical, social, and professional challenges, but also deep confusion, mistrust, and corporeal anxiety. Through a series of close readings of poetry and fiction of the period, we saw how language, and literature played an active role these early, experimental stages of clinical diagnosis, by providing rich conceptual frameworks for the exploration and interpretation of a new auditory realm, while proffering both scientific and imaginative explorations of its potential physical, and at times, metaphysical significance.

This paper was followed by a response by a member of the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network’s Steering Committee, Dr Karin Sellberg, a Lecturer in the Advanced Humanities programme at the University of Queensland.

Dr Sellberg’s response focused on the fascinating sensual politics involved in the doctor-patient encounters featured in Dickson’s literary examples of stethoscopic examination. The secrecy (or lack of understanding) of the instrument’s inner workings created a knowledge gap between doctor and patient, but it seemingly also created a shared physical experience of the patient’s body, as the heart could be heard by both.

Drawing attention to the fact that already in William Harvey’s famous treatise on the circulation of the blood De Motu Cordis (1628), there is significant emphasis on a sensual encounter between doctor and patient through tactile measurement of the pulse. Sellberg thus posed the question of whether the study of the heart perhaps invites a multi-sensory viewpoint even before the introduction of an instrument. Considering the limited visual understanding of the living heart at this time, she furthermore suggested that the object of the stethoscope engaged in a pre-existing tension within the clinical encounter between seeing and other types of sensual knowledge of the body.

The paper and the response together elicited a lively discussion by the audience, over a 90-minute session. The recording of the session can be found on the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network’s website.

The second WIP session, featuring new work by member Vanessa Bartlett, on “Kathy High Cultural Imaginaries of Microbial Hacking,” will be held on August 17. This session will focus on the relationship between artwork by Kathy High and the brain-gut microbiome.

You can register for the next event or subscribe to receive notices and updates from the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network.


Elizabeth Stephens in an Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, and Founder and Convenor of the Australasian Health and Medical Humanities Network. Her most recent monograph is Normality: A Critical Genealogy (Chicago UP), co-authored with Peter Cryle. Her recently completed Future Fellowship examines the history of experimentation as a site of intersection between the arts and sciences.

Melissa Dickson is a Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Birmingham, where she teaches across the long nineteenth century and researches the relationships between Victorian literature, science, and medicine. She is the author of Cultural Encounters with the Arabian Nights in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2019), co-author of Anxious Times: Medicine and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (2019), and co-editor of Progress and Pathology: Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century.

Karin Sellberg is a lecturer in humanities at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland. She is primarily a literary scholar with research interests in feminist philosophy, gender studies, medical humanities and queer theory. Her publications include the two edited books Gender: Time(Macmillan, 2018) and Corporeality and Culture (Ashgate, 2014), five journal special issues, and a forthcoming book on transgender narratives of self and embodiment. 


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