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The Editor’s Eye

July 15, 2014

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

Elizabeth Hurren.

Elizabeth Hurren.

“It’s marvellous the workings of a wheelbarrow.” This was my Irish Grannie’s favourite piece of homespun wisdom – it covered everything that life could throw at you and a lot of surprises that made life really worth living. A district nurse and midwife, married to a man originally born in India, she knew all about the amazing uses a wheelbarrow could be put to in modern medicine: taking clean laundry deliveries to surgical wards, wheeling pregnant women to theatre, carrying clean water from village wells and food from the fields to nourish countless millions – in a global health economy the wheelbarrow has surely been one of the most versatile and underrated pieces of medical equipment. Did I mention that it covered sex education too? My Grannie would whisper that with the birds and the bees, “so much depends on the wheelbarrow”. I never worked out the precise mechanics of wheelbarrow reproduction, but I did learn that for many of the poorest a wheelbarrow was their mobile home – a pram for precious babies – a trusted family heirloom. In this summer 2014 issue all our contributors invite us to see human creativity and medical diversity in humdrum things and outwardly familiar predicaments.

Dealing with the normal but unpredictable in life connects us to people’s myriad pain thresholds. These highlight the different dialogues with pain that patients need to voice: a topic explored by the Birkbeck Pain Project and their innovative creative partnership with performance poet Jo Shapcott featured in this issue. Medical historians at the University of Warwick, meanwhile, have been working together on a wide range of innovative public engagement initiatives. Here we have a particular focus on India: from Kyle Jackson’s fascinating archive searches in the remote state of Mizoram, to David Hardiman and Projit Bihari Mukharji’s explorations of how poorer Indians depend on unregulated healthcare services (‘subaltern therapeutics’), to Orla Mulrooney’s oral histories investigating the recent phenomenon of medical tourism. Meanwhile, on British shores, Tania Woloshyn looks at the basic equipment of light therapeutics and skin-cancer campaigns. A theme of being tanned, fit and healthy is taken up by Hilary Marland, who revisits the medical impact of cycling on well-woman medicine from late Victorian times. Moving forward, Laura King engages with what it meant to be a father in the 20th century; and Claudia Stein highlights how Karl Sudhoff spearheaded public engagement in modern ways that look surprisingly familiar today.

Looking ahead to the next issue, we will be commemorating the centenary of World War I. Do get in touch if you have a public engagement initiative on war and medicine that you would like to highlight.

Winter 2014 will also be the last print issue of Wellcome History. With online communications able to reach wider and more varied audiences than print, and publication far more nimble, we’re increasingly focusing our public engagement energies on the digital world. In 2015 there will be exciting opportunities to pitch (and contribute to) stories for the Wellcome Trust’s new online magazine, Mosaic. Details for submission will be in the next issue. The Trust blog and the Wellcome Library blog will likewise feature your latest research activities as they happen; these already have a wide range of readers, and use Creative Commons licences so that articles can also be shared, republished or translated by other blogs or websites.

I hope that sharing the best of what we do online will become the equivalent of an emblematic wheelbarrow, transforming digital research collaborations and networks in the medical humanities.

My kindest regards,

Elizabeth Hurren

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

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