Centre for Medical History

Published on: 19 May 2014

What are medical humanities, what benefit does their research bring and how can they help shape the modern world?

In this article we will be looking at how the research taking place in medical humanities’ Centre for Medical History is having an impact on modern medical practice.

Exeter’s Centre for Medical History is a key part of Exeter’s Medical Humanities Strategy; it is an interdisciplinary hub dedicated to advancing research into medical history and its applications in the modern world.

For Professor Mark Jackson, it is partly a personal story. The Professor of Medical History and Medical Humanities theme leader originally trained as a doctor but became frustrated with the lack of understanding of the social and cultural factors in illnesses.

Illnesses are more complex than just a set of biological symptoms; Mark explained that the public ‘tend to understand most illnesses in biological terms’.

We think that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance and we treat them in biological ways, with medication.

Professor Mark Jackson, Professor of Medical History

The Centre’s work adds value to medical research thanks to its interdisciplinary approach. Input from different disciplines means that the subject can be viewed from social, medical, historical and cultural contexts to build a more complete picture of the topic.

Mark explained how research done in this centre can have an impact on modern day medicine, saying: “Although the scholars in the centre are mainly historians, we’re very keen to contribute to current debates – mental health debates in particular.”

The Centre brings together research from humanities and science disciplines to probe topics including insanity, mental disability, infanticide and the development of institutional care.

On 21 May Professor Sander Gilman, a prominent historian of medicine from Atlanta’s Emory University, will be giving a talk to discuss the value of medical humanities. He will explore how it should be seen as a pragmatic answer for those who overlook the value of the humanities to the education process - how it can be used to give medical students a broader knowledge of their subject.

Sex and history

The award winning Sex and History project has been developed on the foundations of their Sexual Knowledge research for the Centre for Medical History. The impact project takes advantage of the historical context of its subject matter to prompt discussion about sex and relationships.

Researchers Dr Rebecca Langlands and Professor Kate Fisher’s project uses historical objects, such as European chastity belts, Roman phallic amulets and Chinese erotic carvings as a powerful and productive stimulus, through which people can explore sexual questions that concern many young people today.

Kate explained: “The use of objects from past cultures helps create a distance that depersonalises discussion; the objects expand people’s horizons, open up new ways of thinking about sex, provide routes into discussions of key issues such as pornography, consent and body image and legitimate alternative ways of being.”

The project is responding to recent Department of Education guidelines which have drawn attention to the need for sex education to go beyond basic biological and contraceptive information.

They believe that sex education should provide structures though which ‘children and young people develop confidence in talking, listening and thinking about sex and relationships’.

Contemporary relevance

Dr Alison Haggett is a history Research Fellow whose research has looked at constructions of masculinity since the Second World War and how this has impacted on patterns of psychological and psychosomatic illness in men.

This project could have an impact on today’s healthcare. Alison explained: “It has massive contemporary relevance. Looking back over history, men weren’t always so reluctant to share their feelings.

“We can use lessons from history to inform the present. The message I’m receiving is that cultural awareness of gender issues is often underplayed in the clinical training of psychiatrists and psychologists.

“We also need to engage men to talk about mental health and encourage them to go and seek help.”

Grand challenges

Mental health is one of the Centre’s particular areas of interest and this is being explored in one of Exeter’s Grand Challenge themes: No health without mental health?. Mark and Alison are co-organising this theme and Exeter undergraduates will be able to explore how medical humanities might help us further understand the causes of mental illness and approaches to treatment. 

Former government spin doctor Alastair Campbell will be delivering a talk for this Grand Challenges theme on the importance of dealing with the issues surrounding mental illness.

Alastair’s own struggle with alcoholism and depression, following a breakdown in the mid 80s, has led to him becoming an active mental health campaigner. He is a former MIND champion and ambassador for the Time to change campaign - an organisation which aims to raise awareness about mental health problems and campaigns against stigma.

His talk takes place on 3 June and requires attendees to book in advance.

Wellcome trust

The Centre is funded by The Wellcome Trust as part of their medical humanities theme.

This subject explores critical insights into health and disease to enrich our understanding of health, medicine and disease.

The theme investigates and gives meaning to our experiences of health and illness, topics which are often overlooked by the biomedical sciences.


Related links

» Professor Sander Gilman
» Time to change
» The Wellcome Trust

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