The medical humanities
Written by Claire Hansen in Criticism and Research | 11.06.2015
We have covered a range of modes of engagement with Shakespeare on the Shakespeare Reloaded blog, from sign language to ecocriticism. Today I’m taking a look at the field of medical humanities.
How do we define the study of medical humanities? Durham University's Centre for Medical Humanities offers the following useful definition:
an emerging field of enquiry in which humanities and social sciences perspectives are brought to bear upon an exploration of the human side of medicine.
In the opening editorial for the journal Medical Humanities, David Greaves and Martyn Evans argue that there are two main approaches to medical humanities:
The first is concerned with complementing medical science and technology through the contrasting perspective of the arts and humanities, but without either side impinging on the other. The second aims to refocus the whole of medicine in relation to an understanding of what it is to be fully human; the reuniting of technical and humanistic knowledge and practice is central to this enterprise. We have described these two approaches to medical humanities as “additive” and “integrated” respectively[.]
They use the work of Richard Smith to build on these two versions of medical humanities. The ‘additive’ view holds that medicine can be ‘softened’ by exposing practitioners to the humanities. The ‘integrated’ view, though, aims to reshape the ‘nature, goals and knowledge base’ of medicine itself (Greaves and Evans, p. 1).
In general, they argue, this discipline is concerned with understanding what it is to be ‘fully human’ (p.1). This raises many interesting questions about the relationship between science and the arts, the purpose of art (and the question of whether the arts can and should be purposed for something beyond itself), the role of humanities in helping to understand ‘humanity’, and the way our educational institutions are structured and how these constructed divisions of knowledge are (or are not) useful.
This also encourages interesting reflections on the purpose of studying literature like Shakespeare. For example, are the acts of reading a poem and using a poem (to educate doctors, for example) ‘mutually exclusive’? (Greaves and Evans, p.2).
This is only a brief overview of a broad and growing discipline. There are diverse ways of understanding and engaging with medical humanities. For example, this recent Lancet article uses ancient Greek art to reflect on the human body. Richard Horton writes:
Medicine, in life and death, begins and ends with the intoxicating beauty of human flesh.(Richard Horton, 'Beauty, the body, and identity', The Lancet 385: 9977, 18 April 2015, p. 1499).
In quite a different approach, in her article 'Bringing drama into medical education', Melissa McCullough reflects on a project that saw medical students and drama students work on topics in medicine and bioethics.
Closer to Shakespeare studies, the following articles from the Medical Humanities journal incorporate Shakespeare into this field.
M. Spicci’s article looks at the body politic of Macbeth as ‘a real human body’ ('The body as metaphor: digestive bodies and political surgery in Shakespeare's Macbeth', Medical Humanities 33, 2007, p. 69).
Kenneth W. Heaton studies the appearance of 'stress-related sensory disturbances' in Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The symptoms noted in Shakespeare's plays include vertigo, breathlessness, fatigue, headache, deafness, numbness, faintness and cold feelings. He argues that compared to his fellow dramatists, Shakespeare was ‘extraordinarily prone to mention the bodily manifestations of emotion in his writings’ (p. 102). Heaton suggests:
Fainting, dying, screwing up the eyes, pouting and biting the lip are objective changes. They cannot be dismissed as metaphorical or minimised as purely psychological. This does not gainsay the possibility that Shakespeare’s body consciousness is part of that wider self-consciousness manifested in some of his characters. Many doctors are reluctant to attribute physical symptoms to emotional disturbance, and this results in delayed diagnosis, overinvestigation and inappropriate treatment. They could learn to be better doctors by studying Shakespeare. This is important because the so-called functional symptoms are the leading cause of general practitioner visits and of referrals to specialists.(Kenneth W. Heaton, 'Body-conscious Shakespeare: sensory disturbances in troubled characters', Medical Humanities 37, 2011: p. 102)
In another example, a new interdisciplinary project called ‘Life of Breath’ is exploring the interconnection between medical humanities and literature and many other fields. Have a look at this fascinating blog post by the University of Exeter’s Naya Tsentourou, who writes on the breath in Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as George Herbert and John Donne.
The Medical Humanities Journal is a great place to start if you’re interested in pursuing this topic. It has many open-access articles.
Durham University's Centre for Medical Humanities has a blog.
Yale School of Medicine’s Medical Humanities and the Arts has a useful reading list.
NYU's School of Medicine has an active medical humanities online presence, including a database and a blog.
Other resources covered here include:
- David Greaves and Martyn Evans, 'Medical humanities', Medical Humanities, 26:1, 2000: 1-2.
- Kenneth W. Heaton, 'Body-conscious Shakespeare: sensory disturbances in troubled characters', Medical Humanities 37, 2011: 97-102.
- Richard Horton, 'Beauty, the body, and identity', The Lancet 385: 9977, 18 April 2015: 1499-1500.
- Melissa McCullough, 'Bringing drama into medical education', The Lancet 379:9815, 11 February 2012: 512-13.
- I.C. McManus, 'Humanity and the medical humanities', The Lancet 346:8983, 1995: 1143-45.
- M. Spicci, 'The body as metaphor: digestive bodies and political surgery in Shakespeare's Macbeth', Medical Humanities 33, 2007: 67-69.
- ‘Life of Breath’ blog.