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The Editor’s Eye

October 18, 2013

Focusing on the stories of the medical humanities – by Elizabeth T Hurren

Elizabeth Hurren.

Elizabeth Hurren.

Paint splashes dot the floors. The plumbing sounds like a bad case of indigestion. As I type, there is still a large hole in the back wall where the stonework needs surgery. So far my house builders have been on site for six months. For all the snags, I have become rather fond of one builder’s homespun wisdom: “Oh don’t worry, a bit of four by two will fix that, for sure.” “Really?” “No problem, bit of wood will work wonders.” With supreme irony, Coldplay’s lyric “I will try to fix you” blasts out from his radio. Then, on moving-in day, it struck me that medicine, like repairing a house, has been all about “a bit of four by two” for centuries. In this issue, we focus on some remarkable people who have not just endeavoured to cure society’s ills with limited resources, but have done so with remarkable creativity, imagination and a timely dose of common sense.

We open issue 52 [PDF 3.5MB] with Dr Martin Lister – the first spider-man in history – a polymath who was fascinated by the natural world and whose travel notes are the subject of detailed new research by Anna Marie Roos. Anton Chekhov, the writer and physician, likewise kept a detailed record of his medical travels. His surprising encounters with convicts are brought to life by Jonathan Cole, Marius Turda and Andrew Dawson. Each has been fascinated by Chekhov’s journey, the new ways of thinking and seeing in his medical imagination.

A perennial theme in medicine is the quest for innovative solutions to common medical problems – with malaria one of the most serious. Martin Duke retraces Dr David Livingstone’s medical travels and encounters with quinine in Africa. It was Burroughs Wellcome who first marketed this new ‘miracle cure’ for millions. Meanwhile, laughter remains perhaps the best medicine of all, as Mark Bryant finds in reviewing the hilarious medical cartoons in the Wellcome Library.

Medical students have always had a mixed reputation for practical jokes but less is known than it should be about medical training in Ireland, which Laura Kelly has been investigating. Looking further afield, the public health challenges confronting the British Army in Sudan (in new research by Michael Tyquin) and the townsfolk of Hereford (the subject of a local study by Jane Wise) together highlight just how inventive the Victorians had to be before the era of antibiotics.

Elsewhere, Simon Coleman helps readers to rediscover the papers of the father of genetics, while Janet Greenlees reminds us of the importance of religion, health and welfare, in the north of England, Wales and Scotland.

Looking ahead, I am pleased to report that we are now preparing a special World War I commemorative issue for 2014, and that scholars at the University of Warwick will also be highlighting their recent public engagement work. Do get in touch with me if you have new research to share. I am particularly keen to feature the work of scholars at an early career stage. So it is with great pleasure that I note that our leading article in the last issue – by Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, about the use of toads in pregnancy testing – featured not only in the media on BBC Radio 4 and in the Times, but was also by special request republished in a leading biomedical journal. Proof positive that Wellcome History connects everyone to a wider community eager to share the latest ideas, finds and news stories in the medical humanities – so please do keep in touch so that we can publicise the best of what we all do together.

Kind regards,

Elizabeth Hurren

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

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