Kultúrorvostan: Medical Humanities in Hungary

Eszter Ureczky reflects on the growth of medical humanities in Hungary and points towards future areas of interest for the field.

The phrase “medical humanities” still needs explanation in most Hungarian academic settings – both in the fields of biomedical sciences and humanities. At the four medical schools in the country, located in the capital (Budapest) and three regional centres (Debrecen, Pécs, Szeged), compulsory and elective subjects like bioethics, behavioural sciences, medical history and clinical psychology are part of the core curriculum, but they are usually not identified by the umbrella term of “medical humanities.”

Other researchers directly or indirectly involved in the field typically work in language or literature departments, especially English (like myself: trained as a literary historian, I teach courses on medical humanities at the University of Debrecen, both at the Faculty of Humanities and Medicine). This phenomenon might be related to the tendency for new theoretical approaches in cultural studies (e.g. gender, postcolonial and ecocritical studies) to arrive in Hungary through the mediation and cultural/linguistic translation of modern languages departments. As such, the anglophone medical humanities have had a decisive impact on the development of the field in the country, yet our particular social and historical context as a post-socialist, Central Eastern European country is distinct from the established trends in “Western” or “mainstream” medical humanities research and thus adds an additional dimension to it.

In order to understand the reasons behind this somewhat lopsided institutional background, a multilingual and multicultural medical humanities approach appears necessary, as not even the Hungarian translation of the term is a well-established expression. Terms like “medical humanities” (the closest Hungarian translation is orvosbölcsészet) and “cultural-medical studies” (kultúrorvostan) are equally used, but the future will decide which one will prove more lasting. However, it is clear that the medical humanities are currently gaining ground in Hungarian university education, scientific research and cultural life in general.

Map of Hungary showing the locations of the country's four medical schools.

Current developments

There are several academics in Hungary who are involved in the medical humanities; however, they rarely identify themselves as such. Thus, the immediate priority is to create a network of all the researchers who have published relevant material, as such a step would assist the development and the visibility of the field, making it easier to organize conferences, launch research projects and join international collaborations. In the longer term, the institutionalization of the medical humanities could follow British and US patterns, such as the establishment of specialized MA and PhD programs.

However, this agenda entails a dilemma of affiliation; that is, the questions of where the medical humanities should primarily develop out of – medical schools or faculties of humanities – and of how to build a much needed bridge between the two academic “kingdoms”, which are still rigidly separated (and often invisibly but tangibly hierarchized) in Hungary. This division between the humanities and the biomedical sciences significantly impacts on research in several ways, often leading to a lack of communication and mutual involvement in each other’s research projects due to traditionally different methodologies, terminologies and research aims.

As a result of this segregation of the faculties, medical schools take a pragmatic approach to the place and ratio of humanities subjects in their curricula, while the stereotypically “purple” humanities (that is, the habitual devaluation of the humanities as an overly subjective and socio-economically unproductive field) are more motivated by theoretical questions. Both sides would benefit from strengthening the interdisciplinary dialogue, as, in my experience, English majors find bioethical dilemmas morally and culturally intriguing, while medical students very much enjoy arts-based discussions that contribute to their development as individual people, not just as future practitioners. Nevertheless, the dialogue between medicine and the humanities is unavoidable: Hungary, as a post-socialist, Central Eastern European, post-Covid and, at the same time, greying society, urgently needs comprehensive solutions concerning the care of aged, the disabled, the underprivileged and the chronically ill.

One important step, in this regard, is that some Hungarian universities have joined international medical humanities-related consortia, such as EUGLOH and NeurotechEU, while EU Horizon projects have also effectively facilitated this approach. Joining these consortia is making a major difference in terms of research and practice, as these consortia offer international connections and patterns for intra-, inter- and extra-institutional co-operation. EUGLOH, for instance, has an online lecture series, consisting of monthly lectures from various fields of medical humanities, attended by thousands of international students, which represents a major platform for mainstreaming medical humanities discourse in Hungary.

Another crucial step in this process has been the creation of BOMM, the working group of Hungarian university instructors who teach bioethical subjects at medical schools and elsewhere, initially created by Péter Kakuk (Central European University) and now run by László Nemes (Semmelweis University). At our regular meet-ups, held online or in person, we share teaching experiences, best practice and future plans, discussing typically Hungarian problems and how to integrate our work into a European framework. Such a network of Hungary-based researchers offers the field a sense of unity and belonging that seems to be a pre-requisite of a pan-European one. I am always glad when I receive invitations to open exhibitions or to participate in roundtable discussions and podcasts on the topic – this is why I also run a Facebook page dedicated to the medical humanities.

Screenshot of the Medical Humanities/Kultúrorvostan Facebook page, run by Eszter Ureczky.

Major publications

In terms of publications, several journals, journal issues, monographs and articles, which are relevant to the field of medical humanities in Hungary, could be mentioned, even though most of them, again, do not identify as such. Journals like Lege Artis Medicinae (medical history), Kharón (thanatology) and Kaleidoscope (medicine and the arts) are crucial in this sense, as there is no specifically medical humanities-focused journal in the country. These journals could, however, become platforms for opening up this academic discourse.

Naturally, the pandemic has also elicited various responses on the broader social position and problems of the medical establishment, drawing attention to the psychological toll it has taken on healthcare workers (in Hungary, probably as a heritage of the Socialist nanny state, doctors are still widely idolized as invulnerable heroes and, at the same time, are commonly scapegoated for unsuccessful treatment). For instance, Apertúra, a film studies journal, has dedicated an issue to epidemic cinema, while my monograph on the representation of epidemic disease in historical fiction came out last year.

The dedicated medical humanities issue of the literary-cultural journal Helikon (2022), edited by Beáta Gubacsi and myself, was a major step toward establishing the field in Hungary, as no journal issue before had been dedicated to this specific topic. An edited volume is also underway, based on an online conference I organized in 2021, on the interconnections of the pandemic and the care crisis. This was the first medical humanities conference to take place in Hungary.

Case study 1: Hungarian doctor-authors

A rapidly growing subgenre of medical humanities-related works in Hungary is authored by practising medical doctors, who are also invested in various forms of art, such as fiction, poetry, film and the fine arts. On the one hand, doctor-authors have always been an essential segment of the polyhistor archetype (outstanding thinkers in the history of Western culture, who were trained in medicine but also contributed to the arts). However, this tradition has been accelerated by the recent pandemic, which has probably motivated several doctors to open up about their personal and professional struggles and crises, often as a form of coping mechanism and self-care.

In the light of these historical precedents and recent developments, one of my long-term research goals is to examine the oeuvres of contemporary Hungarian doctor-authors, such as Tamás Molnár F. (military surgeon and medical historian), József Gerevich (psychiatrist and art historian), Patricia Imolya (intensive care doctor and writer), Zoltán Vámos (intensive care specialist anaesthesiologist, ambulance officer and film director), Attila Erdős (pathologist and writer), Ágoston Gajdos (psychiatrist and poet) and Judit Maklári (pulmonologist and poet). The dual identity of these authors features in their work in both thematic and poetic ways, offering a humanizing, insider view of medicine and shedding light on care workers’ interpretations of embodiment, suffering and loss.

Just as patients’ accounts of their illness and the genre of the autopathography have become immensely popular since the 1960s, especially in the wake of Susan Sontag’s (1987) work, now a new cultural turn seems to have taken place, where doctors are also speaking out about their experiences – especially physician burnout and moral distress – through artistic means. Addressing these authors and their works from a medical humanities perspective could initiate a more inclusive and mutually beneficial conversation about healthcare, social crises and mental health – for patients, carers and doctors.

There are also certain aspects of this trend of doctor writing in Hungary that are distinct to the country, especially the way the care crisis is evolving in a post-socialist healthcare scenario. This raises questions around how certain elements of neoliberalism are transforming the heritage of state socialism and welfare services, how Hungary is West and East at the same time and how the mass emigration of doctors, as well as the financial draining of the system, is leading to its collapse, with humiliating levels of precarity for both healthcare workers and patients.

Case study 2: dementia narratives

Dementia narratives appear to be an especially revealing example of how the medical humanities could gain ground in Hungary, as several volumes of fiction, academic monographs, blogs and films have addressed this topic in the past few years. Zoltán Vámos’s motion picture, The Dust of Diamond Highways (2022), is a remarkable short film based on the doctor director’s own experiences with an older female patient living with dementia – a beautifully subtle depiction of the power of empathy, nostalgia and human connection, transcending the boundaries of age, gender, profession and physical condition.

Blogs like those by Teréz Szűcs (started in 2020) or Kira Kéky (started in 2021) both thematize female caregivers’ visceral experiences of looking after their mothers, suffering from dementia and dying of cancer respectively, while shedding light on how real the crisis of care has become – the phenomenon known as “care migration” (care workers migrating from East to West, South to North, leaving behind their own families to earn enough to provide for them) has lead to labour shortages in home care services.

Fictional accounts of dementia have also increased in number, including the novel Nélkülem, nélkülded (Without me, without you, 2020) by Gergely Légrádi and Kata Tisza’s semi-fictional, essayistic book on ageing, Egyedül: A szerethető öregedés felé (On My Own: Towards Lovable Aging, 2022). Academic books on the topic include Alaine Polcz’s (2002) internationally paradigm setting work on ageing, illness, death and “eutelia” (her word for a “good death”). Dementia narratives have thus appeared in various high and middle brow genres and on social media as well, clearly showing how grave the crisis in Hungary’s current demographic situation – part of the global demographic trend of greying societies – actually is.

At the same time, the rights of and the abuse suffered by older citizens in Hungary is part of a recognizable post-socialist and Eastern European cultural heritage. The lasting impact of socialism on the Hungarian psyche and the country’s cultural production is a complex question, a hybrid of trauma and nostalgia, usually entailing a mistrust of institutional power and at the same time a reliance on the state as a source of welfare. On this issue, see the recent and outstanding works of Maya Nadkarni (2020) and Lisa Pope Fischer (2016).


About the author

Eszter Ureczky is Senior Lecturer in the Department of British Studies of the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Debrecen, Hungary. Her main research areas include contemporary Anglophone and Eastern European fiction and film, with a theoretical background in the medical humanities, biopolitics, disability studies and ageing studies. You can find her on Facebook  and Academia.edu.


References

Izabella Füzi and Annamária Hódosy, eds. 2020. “Járványdiskurzusok (a filmben és a médiában).” Apertúra 16. https://www.apertura.hu/2020/osz/2020-osz-xvi-evfolyam-1-szam-jarvanydiskurzusok-a-filmben-es-a-mediaban.

Erdős, Attila. 2014. Felvágós könyv. Budapest: SFS.HU Kft.

Fischer, Lisa Pope. 2016. Symbolic Traces of Communist Legacy in Post-Socialist Hungary: Experiences of a Generation that Lived During the Socialist Era. Leiden: Brill.

Imolya, Patricia. 2022. Esetlapok. Kórháznovellák. Budapest: Athenaeum Kiadó.

Imolya, Patricia, and Eszter Ureczky. 2022. “A gondoskodás válsága. Az orvosbölcsészet lehetőségei.” Glossza 28. https://abtk.hu/ismerettar/glossza/adasok/3059-glossza-28-a-gondoskodas-valsaga-az-orvosbolcseszet-lehetosegei.

Légrádi, Gergely. 2020. Nélkülem – Nélküled. Budapest: Jaffa.

Polcz, Alaine. 2002. One Woman in the War: Hungary 1944-1945. Translated by Albert Tezla. Budapest: Central European University Press.

Nadkarni, Maya. 2020. Remains of Socialism: Memory and the Futures of the Past in Postsocialist Hungary. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1987. Illness as a Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tisza, Kata. 2021. Egyedül – A szerethető öregedés felé. Budapest: Scolar.

Ureczky, Eszter. 2021. Kultúra és kontamináció. A járvány metaforái és biopolitikája kortárs regényekben. Budapest: Kijárat.

Ureczky, Eszter. 2022. “Silvering Cultures: Ageing Societies, Ageism, and End-of-life Care.” European University Alliance for Global Health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?#v=2db2Oiyw67Q.

Ureczky, Eszter, and Beáta Gubacsi, eds. 2022. “Kultúrorvostan/Orvosbölcsészet.” Helikon 68. https://epa.oszk.hu/03500/03580/00025/pdf.

Vámos, Zoltán. 2022. Dust of Diamond Highways. https://agyemantutpora.hu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.