Founded in 2002, the Association for Medical Humanities (AMH) aims to promote, within the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the medical humanities in education, healthcare and research. It has links with the BMJ journal Medical Humanities and has organized annual academic conferences since 2003. Courses on Medical Humanities are increasing in the UK and can be found at University College London, Durham University, King’s College London, University of Aberdeen, University of Leicester, University of Glasgow, University of Bristol, Birkbeck College University of London, and University of Swansea.

On Monday 5th July the AMH 2010 conference titled ‘Humanities at the Cutting Edge: Conversations between surgery, pathology, the humanities & the arts’ opened in Truro, Cornwall, with an evening reception and talk. There were already two options, either attend a keynote talk by heart surgeon Francis Wells on his research into Leonardo da Vinci at the ‘Knowledge Spa’ Truro, or attend artist David Cotterrell’s keynote talk about medicine in conflicted spaces at Tate St Ives. I wanted to go to both.

After a plenary and coffee on Tuesday morning, presentations were split into workshops and papers. The choice was between two workshops and a dizzying array of 21 presentations grouped into three themes. Theme 1 was Surgery, pathology and identity; Theme 2 was The ‘pathological’ and the ‘normal’; and Theme 3 was Humanities and arts as health interventions. Each theme had two or three groups of three speakers in each group. So already before lunch on the Tuesday, 21 people had presented papers and two groups of people had run workshops.

Some of the interesting presentations I missed included art in hospitals, patient communication through theatre, the wonder of pathology and workshops on drawing the body and documentary filming of surgery. I listened to three very good papers in a group from Theme 3. After lunch I attended a useful practical workshop run by the editor of Medical Humanities and missed hearing any of the 18 papers presented that afternoon. On Wednesday the same problem occurred with two workshops running at the same time as 18 speakers’ presentations. The workshop I wished to attend the most ran at the same time as my presentation. It was about pop up surgical theatres and allowing surgeons not just to practise but to rehearse.

There were just too many parallel sessions, too many themes and groups within themes and simultaneous workshops. Some delegates gave presentations to empty rooms with no one else but the other two speakers present. At least people came to my talk. There were many interesting themes, viewpoints and areas of research but too many to hear.

At the plenary on Tuesday morning a psychiatrist presented research on coding and categorizing that was welcomed by medics and greeted with dismay by artists. Her method of labeling patients in distress using a process of narrative writing had the appearance of berating creativity and imagination by placing patients within a negative category of behaviour. Perhaps this is where the notion of subjectivity and adaptability to take into account the uniqueness of people in different situations may have helped.

However two papers given by medics saw creativity and subjectivity as positive. One, a mature graduating medical student discussed the tricky subject of finding cancer beautiful. Emotive and well researched it was fascinating to hear concerns from a medic that would usually be heard amongst artists. In another talk a GP discussed art being so important in his life he took a PG Cert in Fine Art and then an MA in medical humanities. He confessed to having spent years using a pseudonym and creating an underground comic depicting the dark humour and cruelty of his experiences in his surgery. Believing art to be a great way to express and communicate medical issues, he has left his job to become a full time artist. He recently organized the ‘Comics and Medicine: Medical Narrative in Graphic Novels’ conference at UCL and runs a website dedicated to Graphic Medicine.

The best part for me was the Wednesday plenary presentation. This was a performance by Peggy Shaw, a cross dressing, lesbian grandmother in her sixties working in collaboration with the Clod Ensemble, three musicians playing violin, cello and keyboard. Her show, ‘Must: the inside story’, saw Peggy dressed in a man’s suit and intoning poetic dialogue, some in beat with the accompanying music about her body’s history and experiences. Her deep New York accent described her mother’s mental illness and treatments, her own experience of giving birth, and sensations of touch and significance of bones. She lyrically chanted and sometimes sang in front of screens depicting cells and X-rays and other medical imagery. Engaging and vulnerable I had not expected to find her performative method of description and exploration of the body so powerful and enjoyable.

The AMH 2010 conference gave an opportunity for disciplines across the breadth of medical humanities to meet and talk and importantly listen to research and work undertaken from within fields of surgery, visual arts, pathology, clinical practice, creative writing, poetry, history, sociology, philosophy and general practice. Sometimes this worked and sometimes there were slight clashes or moments of misunderstanding. Medical doctors and artists and writers expressed concerns. Some felt incapable of reading arts & humanities articles without adequate knowledge of the art cannon or knowledge of Heidegger for example. However, researchers and practitioners in arts & humanities have often had to immerse themselves in the language of medical articles and find out the meanings for themselves.

There were diverse practical workshops, a breadth of visual and literary arts on display and a wide range of academic papers. I really wanted to see more as the papers I saw were good and the people I spoke to where diverse and fascinating. I wish I hadn’t missed other presentations and workshops which also sounded really interesting.

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