recent biomed

MRI scanners, Madeleine cakes and professional identity

Apropos the earlier discussion of MRI scanners on this blog – here’s the manuscript for a short talk I gave to the Danish Radiological Society’s annual meeting in Copenhagen, Wednesday 24 January 2007.The full title of the talk was “MRI scanners and Madeleine cakes: Contemporary radiological heritage and professional identity”. I assume that I’m the […]

Apropos the earlier discussion of MRI scanners on this blog – here’s the manuscript for a short talk I gave to the Danish Radiological Society’s annual meeting in Copenhagen, Wednesday 24 January 2007.The full title of the talk was “MRI scanners and Madeleine cakes: Contemporary radiological heritage and professional identity”.
I assume that I’m the only speaker on this two-day program who will look backward — to radiology in the past. Everyone else at this meeting will speak about the radiant future of radiology — and quite naturally so — because scientists, doctors and engineers have always looked forward – you would be damned if you didn’t.
But I will look back, because it’s my job to remind medical professionals — who have their minds securely fixed at horizon of future possibilities — that science and technology has a past — and that this past is worth taking a look at now and then.
I don’t think it takes much to convince you why the past is worth paying attention to. One major argument is, of course, that to be aware of one’s past is one of the most important means by which we acquire identity — in all aspects of life.
For example, we perpetually construct and re-construct our personal identities by thinking back and making sense of our own personal lives in autobiographical stories: about when I did this, when I did that, etc.
More importantly, awareness of the past is one of the most powerful means for bringing the individuals of a society, or community, together to acquire cultural and social identity —whether it is national identity, religious identity, a family identity, or whatever. To a large extent we have these and many other identities because we relate our present thoughts and activities to what happened in the past.
Professional identities are not much different. To belong to a medical specialty — like radiology, nuclear medicine or nuclear physics, etc — is not just a question of having gone through a long specialist training or paying membership to a profesional organisation. It also involves the creation of a shared past together with other members of the profession.
Now I will use my less than 20 minutes here today to try to convince you about two things. First, if we think that the building of a professional identity is a good thing to do, I will suggest that we should pay special attention to the material culture of the past. And, second, that the formation of a professional identity is very much tied up with the ‘recent past’ — the ‘contemporary past’.
First, about the material culture of radiology. As you may have noticed, I haven’t yet used the word ‘history’. In fact, I will not use it at all today. Because the word ‘history’ carries a very special connotation about our relation to the past. The word ‘history’ comes from the Greek word historía – meaning “a study of nature or culture” and the results of such studies, particularly in the form of a narrative, a ‘story’.
To write history, then, is to write stories, narratives, of the past. And this in done in language, in the form of texts: articles, books. To tell stories about the past is, of course, one of the most important vehicles for creating social, cultural and professional identities. Some cultural theorists even suggest that we live so called “narrative lives”. In other words, our personal and communal identities is nothing but the accumulation of our stories about what happened in the past.
But there is also another way of using the past to achieve a sense of identity. In the beginning of Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust tells us about the old Celtic belief that the soul of our dead relatives are held captive in some object and are lost to us until the day when we happen to get hold of the object they are imprisoned in. And then they start trembling, he says, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice, the captive spell is broken — and the souls return to take part in our lives.
Continues Proust:

“And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect”.

The famous picture that Proust then makes is that all people that he had met in his own life were sort captive in the little piece of Madeleine cake which he dipped in his mother’s tea. By smelling and tasting it, these people from the past returned to take part in his life. By eating the cake he recaptured some of the most intense, emotional situations in his own life.
True, Proust’s Madeleine cake gave rise to a story in seven thick volumes which are now part of world literature. But Remembrance of Things Past didn’t start as narrative — it started as a serendipitous contact with a material thing, a material object, which then created a stream of emotionally loaded memories in his mind.
This contact with material things of the past is something else than historía. By getting close to objects we sort of create bonds with the sensual, emotional, evocative and existential aspects of the past. This is important, because it means that if we want to create a shared sense of professional identity we cannot restrict ourselves to facts about the past. Identity is much more than facts. It is a question of emotional attachment and belonging.
As medical doctors (and radiologists) you are all familiar with this. You know that special feeling of touching the metal handles of a diagnostic instrument. You know that cold sensation you get in your finger tips when you apply the gel for the ultrasound investigation. You know the peculiar sounds from the MRI scanner. And you know the special plastic smell in the room where they have placed the newly acquired PET scanner.
To help re-invoke the memories of touch, smell and sound — this is basically what museums are for. We museum people are the archeologists of the past. We collect things that can function as Madeleine cakes. All the stuff that can make you remember the feeling of touching cold metal and the peculiar smells and sounds of the clinic.
This brings me to my second and last point today: that the formation of a professional identity is very much tied up with the recent past, the ‘contemporary past’.
X-ray tubes from the early 20th century are great to watch. We admire the artisan skills that went into the construction of the vacuum bulbs, and we wonder about the carelessness which these people showed when they handled the instruments without knowing how dangerous the invisible rays were.
This admiration for and wonder about things of the past is also an important aspect of our professional identity — and will always play an important role for museums. But that said, early 20th century x-ray tubes (which we have ad libitum in the collections of the Medical Museion here in Copenhagen) cannot really fulfil the role of the Madeleine cake. Because our admiration and wonder of early 20th century x-ray tubes is purely intellectual. (I assume that no-one is this auditorium has a personal remembrance of such x-ray tubes.) And therefore they are not very powerful objects when it comes to the formation of a professional identity.
But contemporary objects do have the power of the Madeleine cake. Like today’s CT scanners, MRI scanners and PET scanners. These and many other contemporary objects are loaded with personal memories for many medical professionals in general, and for radiologists in particular. They have that special power of material objects of the past that can help create a professional identity.
I guess that my general message has gone through by now. That is, that a feeling for the past is an important aspect of the formation of the professional identity of radiologists — as well as for all other medical professions — and that contemporary material objects are especially powerful when it comes to created this professional identity.
And thus my call to you. A hundred years ago, in 1906 and 1907 a group of medical doctors here in Copenhagen circulated a letter to their colleagues to build a medical museum. Over the years their call was rewarded, so that today the Medical Museion at the University here in Copenhagen has hundreds of thousands of medical objects, donated by generations of medical doctors, including (as many of you know) an exquisite collection of radiological instruments.
In 2007 we celebrate the centennary of the foundation of the Medical Museion. And we think that the best way to celebrate this centennary is to perform a remake of the collection effort that started a hundred years ago. But now we don’t need more x-ray tubes. What we really want are your CT scanners, MRI scanner — and not least your PET scanners. Anything from the recent past that can go into our collections and be exhibited and function as a bowl of Madeleine cakes.