Late this October, three of us from the Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University, packed our summer clothes and headed West and South to visit our colleagues at the well-established Institute of Medical Humanities in Galveston. The Medical Branch of the University of Texas (UTMB) opened in 1891 at Galveston, establishing its claim as the oldest medical school west of the Mississippi River. Despite the location of the University’s humanities departments up at Austin, the Institute of Medical Humanities developed at Galveston in the 1970s, making it almost certainly the oldest formalised centre of expertise in our field. The Institute has been under the Directorship of Howard Brody since 2006 following the retirement of Ronald Carson after over twenty years as the Director. During those years, the Institute secured its world reputation in the medical humanities, and particularly around bioethics and the interface of medicine and literature. These fields continue to flourish: the Institute is a partner in a large multi-centre programme of ethics based institutional practice; the literature and medicine flagship continues through Ann Hudson Jones and the recent appointment of Mark Clark and the Institute enjoys the direct participation of practicing artists Eric Avery – a psychiatrist and print-maker, the recent appointment of visual anthropologist Jerome Crowder and visiting scholar-artist Graeme Harper. But the Institute is also expanding both intellectually and in size through new appointments to engage with the humanities facing sections of the social sciences. As the field of Medical Humanities continues to attract increasing interest from affiliated disciplines in the UK, it is both exciting and reassuring to see similar expansion of the intellectual field at the leading institute in the USA and we would recommend members of the AMH to visit the web-site and perhaps establish conversations themselves with our colleagues there.
The conversations we had over four days in Galveston were too varied and full to capture in a short note here. But with our own Centre’s core focus on flourishing, we could not help but be moved by the determined spirit evident on the island of Galveston in recovering from the huge damage inflicted two years ago by Hurricane Ike. Amongst the many stories of loss, including the Institute’s own academic base in a lovely old building known locally as ‘Old Red’, the island lost around 80% of the old trees lining the streets, shading gardens and parks, a traumatic change to the island’s sense of place. But local artist Earl Jones, together with colleagues Jim Phillips and Dayle Lewis from outside Galveston, got out their chainsaws and chisels and in collaboration with local homeowners, sculpted images full of local meaning from the damaged trees and stumps, creating in effect a public street gallery that both commemorates the event, reaffirms local meanings of place and creates beauty from chaos. There are various sites available on-line witnessing these uplifting and enduring images of human flourishing.