The Daily Dose: Featuring Helen King–perspectives on medical humanities

Welcome to Literary Medicine’s Daily Dose, companion to the Fiction Reboot!

Today I am very pleased to present Helen King, Professor of Classical Studies whose work in early conceptions of medicine continues to inspire me. I was first introduced to Dr. King remotely–I read and cited her work in my first foray out of strict literary studies a few years ago. She has kindly offered to guest-blog today, offering her perspectives on the medical humanities. Thank you, Helen, for joining us today!



Helen King is the Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, and a Visiting Professor at the Peninsula Medical and Dental School, Truro. Following a first degree in Ancient History and Social Anthropology at UCL, she has specialised in ancient medicine and its reception up to the nineteenth century, focusing in particular on gynaecology and obstetrics in the Renaissance, and has published seven books. A former Fellow of the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies, she has also held visiting positions at Sackville, New Brunswick; University of Victoria, British Columbia; and University of Texas at Austin. She has served on funding committees for the Wellcome Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, chairing the Research Resources panel at the Trust for several years.
She is committed to public engagement and her recent media appearances include Radio 4, ‘In Our Time’, ‘BBC2 History Cold Case’, ‘Tony Robinson’s Gods and Monsters’ and ‘Harlots, Housewives and Heroines’.

Greek and Roman Medicine (Classical World Series) (Classical World Series)Greek and Roman Medicine (Classical World Series)

This introduction to ancient medical systems asks how the experience of illness and the role of medicine were understood in the Greek and Roman worlds. Although topics such as the development of anatomical knowledge are covered, the book focuses on the place of medicine within changing types of society

Guest Post:
For me, the subject ‘medical humanities’ has two dimensions. I want to reflect on both by drawing on two experiences I’ve had in the last few weeks: leading a small group of adults, many of them retired medical practitioners, around Italy to see various historical anatomy theatres and collections of wax models of the body and its parts; and teaching medical students whose training – unlike that undergone by those taking part in the medical history tour – no longer includes human dissection.

The first dimension concerns the idea of humanising medical practitioners. This is no longer a fashionable way of thinking about the medical humanities, but it’s one that is very important to me in my work as a Visiting Professor at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, where the syllabus has been designed to omit human dissection, but to include a high percentage of time spent on the humanities. Here, I teach the history of dissection (and related aspects of the history of medicine along the way) to fourth-year medical students as a Special Study Unit. They are assessed by a reflective log, an essay and a group presentation. I have to grade them not just on subject-specific skills – their use of evidence – but also on their ability to work in a team; as a historian, it interests me that team-working, whether in the operating theatre or the primary care team, is now so important when I am used to historical physicians

La Specola (Image is the property of Dr. Helen King, all rights reserved)

for whom ‘it’s all about me’. Somehow I don’t see Galen as likely to have gained a high mark for team-working! My final session with them is when I grade their presentation and, in the course of the SSU day, see the presentations of other groups. For example, the mobile made by a student to illustrate Alzheimer’s; as the draught moves the photographs of a patient and his family, sometimes they come together and make sense; more often, meaning is fractured. Or the photographs created with Photoshop by a student studying dying: first he talked to people with a terminal diagnosis and asked them what they thought happened at the moment of death; then he created photographs of himself in a hospital bed with these different options, so in one he sees a bright light, in another we can see vague shadows of his loved ones gathering to welcome him, and so on. And in the final part of his project he used these different images to help patients who were not accepting their diagnosis, to give them a focus for discussion. Other students have learned life drawing, or to write poetry, either encapsulating a moment in their day which they found difficult to get out of their minds, or trying to get into the mind of a patient given a particular diagnosis. As a patient, I would like to be treated by these rounded humanities-focused human beings, able to empathise with human experiences and to deal with stress through involvement in the arts.

The second dimension for me concerns using the full range of humanities disciplines to understand medicine. Medicine works by text,

Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, womb (Image is the Property of Dr. Helen King, all rights reserved)

by image, by rhetoric, by ritual, by symbol. Studying the history of dissection, students already know how to read as a physician – they rapidly diagnose an ancient Greek case history, or identify the parts of the body being described in the notes taken by a student of Vesalius – but by taking my SSU they learn to read in other ways too. Why are Vesalius’ bodies shown as antique statuary, or posed as if alive in a Paduan landscape? What attitude to dissection is shown here? They look at images from John Harley Warner showing early medical students posed around ‘their’ cadaver, like hunters round their prey, and they observe how little one could learn from cadavers in the advanced state of decay shown in these photographs. They think about how they as a group ‘bond’ in other ways, and how they learn to cope with the realities of the interior of the body. They think about the differing valuations of medicine in other cultures; this week they thought about topics ranging from the physician Archagathus’ exemption from taxes to the experience of being a Greek slave bought as a physician by a Roman owner. Asked to defend their college’s position on not dissecting, they spontaneously come up with the ancient writer Celsus’ point that you can’t learn about the living by studying the dead. At every turn, they are amazed by similarities between the apparently distant past, and the questions they face now.

La Specola (Image is the property of Dr. Helen King, all rights reserved)

Every year, I find that these students seem to be better at dealing with the realisation that knowledge is contingent. They are amused by Roman dismissals of Greek medicine as ‘always changing’; of course it is! But what of my medical history tour participants? Compared with my students, they seemed more surprised that medicine can be theatre, and that the need for human dissection has been disputed since the ancient world. For them, most striking were the skills and knowledge revealed in past images of the body. They could not get over how accurate 17th and 18th century wax models of the body could be; and they wanted to know why wax is not used as the prime means of teaching medical students today!

Other Interviews, Projects, and Publications Featuring Helen King

2 Replies to “The Daily Dose: Featuring Helen King–perspectives on medical humanities”

  1. Thank you for the interesting post. I wonder, Helen, considering your work at the Open University whether you think that Medical Humanities could ever lend itself to distance learning? So much of the teaching in the field seems to be about process skills: learning to think in different ways, using the material as a starting point for group discussions about ‘reading’ the body, and thinking about epistemology. Can that type of learning happen outside of a inspirational classroom setting? And to what extent is Medical Humanities within medical education dependent on dynamic pedagogy rather than the actual content of sources from the humanities disciplines?

    1. Really interesting questions! I think that medical humanities could be delivered by the ‘supported distance learning’ mode of the Open University as easily as other humanities disciplines; the range of materials I deal with would lend itself well to this way of teaching. I work from visual images and texts that could be used as a way of raising questions and stimulating thinking in a distance context; the sort of discussions I enjoy with my students could be replicated in an OU-type seminar as well as in an online discussion forum. What would be more difficult would be to find a replacement for the times when students raise a question or a topic and I find myself giving an impromptu mini-lecture to fill in some background. But basically I do think the key thing is the selection of the primary sources and the creation of some questions which will challenge the students’ way of thinking!

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