Jane Macnaughton, co-director of the Centre for Medical Humanities writes:

Martyn Evans and I have long had the ambition to link up with the premier centre for medical humanities in the US, the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Texas, so here we with our associate director Sarah Atkinson in San Diego, California!  It just so happened that the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities has its annual conference here and it coincided with our timings in Texas.

To add to the time zone confusion, I spent 24 hours visiting the Centre for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Virginia where I have a contact in Marcia Childress, Associate Professor of Medical Education, literary scholar and Virginia Woolf specialist.  The University of Virginia is in Charlottesville, a beautiful small university town, not unlike Durham, with clapperboard houses, fabulous autumn colours and southern hospitality, grace and friendliness.  There was great interest in our Centre when I described what we are doing and how we are developing, and good response when I gave a paper on ‘Is empathy possible in clinical practice’ at their medical centre hour.  We are lucky that Marcia will be coming to the UK in November and will be contributing to our seminar series.  She will be accompanied by her husband, James (Jim) Childress, who is famous in the world of biomedical ethics as one of the authors of Principles of Biomedical Ethics and originator of the ‘four principles of biomedical ethics’.

Here in San Diego we have attended bits of the ASBH conference so far. I think I have been to enough of the conference to sense that it is not the place for our kind of interdisciplinary medical humanities.  I have been wondering why I have been a bit underwhelmed by it and I think it is because most of what I have been to seems rather confined within either a single disciplinary view of the subject (like the philosopher talking about suffering yesterday) or that sessions are dealing with tired subjects like autonomy in preimplantation genetics, or organ donation.  These are really important subjects but I think I have been so used to our ‘outside the medical box’ way of thinking about things, and indeed, way of thinking about what to think, that I find it all a bit stale.  I am not, of course, a bioethicists so unlikely to be excited by these subjects but I can’t help thinking about Stephen Pattison’s marvellous paper in Medical Humanities, Medical humanities: a vision and some cautionary notes’, where he coined the famous phrase, ‘death course of a discipline.’ I am tempted to put in a paper for next year that will demonstrate how we are doing things, so we will see.

Tomorrow, early, we leave for Galveston, and the real purpose of this visit.  I really look forward to making those contacts and having discussions with Howard Brody and his team.  Now there is a man who understands interdisciplinarity!  23rd Oct 2010


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