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The Editor’s Eye

February 26, 2013

Focusing on the stories of the medical humanities – by Elizabeth T Hurren, Editor of Wellcome History

Elizabeth Hurren.

Elizabeth Hurren.

“Have you ever tried to saw off the top of a skull?” My question to a newspaper reporter certainly got him thinking. We were talking about anatomy: surely, he had insisted, its practice was crude, like butchers in the days of grave-robbing. Not so, I replied, the story is more interesting than standard editorial slants. On reflection, my question about sawing a skull had sounded so normal when it left my lips, but not to the journalist. “No!” he exclaimed. “Quite honestly, nobody has ever asked me that before and I have interviewed thousands of people in this job.” Afterwards he sent me an email of thanks: “For that question, I will never forget you!” Later, over a caffè latte, I thought about all the normal but extraordinary things that we do in the medical humanities. In issue 51 [PDF 1.4 MB], we focus on some of those surprising stories that people our working lives.

Talking to the general public about their career experiences in the medical humanities can be a very fruitful research encounter. In our feature article, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn could not have known in detail the hidden side of pregnancy testing without the important contribution of Audrey Peattie. Tessa Johnson gets beneath the image of the domestic goddess in American family life in the Cold War era by working with neglected surveys. Confronting cadavers and social norms we meet Marianne Boruch, our first Professor of English and Creative Writing to feature in Wellcome History – a scholar-poet who breaks new boundaries in her work on the history of anatomy and dissection. Looking further back in time, Simon Swain and Uwe Vagelpohl rediscover the histories of older manuscripts, the journeys undertaken from Greek originals to Arab medical treatises. In Sophie Cummings and Elaine Leong’s public engagement work we engage with Lady Johanna St John’s great recipe book and the importance of cures for household medicine at Lydiard House in Wiltshire.

How will future historians piece together researchers’ working lives in an internet era when so much that we write is deleted from email? This important contemporary question is the focus of the Human Genome Archive Project, coordinated by the Wellcome Trust. It aims to preserve archive material that is making and remaking the history of science today. With this in mind, Catriona Gilmour Hamilton reminds us that the history of cancer also involves the research volunteer’s perspective. Elsewhere, Shaul Bar-Haim’s conference report highlights the complex relationship between psychoanalysis, the patient and state power in the modern era, while Ruth Levitt explores the historical relevance of patients buying unsafe medicines; and at Swansea University, scholars have been examining resurging debates about disability and wellbeing.

Many of you wrote to say how much you enjoyed the focus on public engagement in issue 50. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to highlight some themes that we are planning to cover in forthcoming issues. Please do get in touch if you have been working on any aspect of the suggestions sent in so far: music as medicine; the poetry of healing; breaking the age barrier; and narratives of sickness. The next submissions deadline is 30 April.

Thank you to all those that have written to me by email, and especially to those who took the time to send a handwritten letter – from the oldest qualified doctor in Britain (aged 100) to a man inspired to write from Kerala on the day he retired from the Indian Air Force. Keep in touch – this editor’s eye enjoys reading them all.

Kind regards,

Elizabeth Hurren

Dr Elizabeth T Hurren is Reader in the Medical Humanities, University of Leicester (

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