Teaching Humanities in Global Health, Part II

If you missed Part I, wherein I explain that I’m going to be teaching at Imperial College London, you can read about it here.

We’re halfway through the term – already! – and I feel like every class I teach, teaches me. Hopefully, I’m teaching the students as well! I feel very spoiled, because the Global Health students are excellent: they are sharp, keen, and open-minded. I’m working to remember names, and I certainly recognise faces.

For our first session, I gave an introduction on the concept of ‘Medical Humanities,’ and invited Year 6 medical student (this is a class of Year 4 medical students) Matt Rinaldi, aka Ananagram, to perform some of his wonderful medically-themed poems, including ‘Hatstand,’ one of my favourites. We looked at some of Sontag’s ‘Illness as Metaphor,’ considered extracts from The Natural Death Handbook (which I’d recommend to anyone – it’s marvellous,) and also explored some of Granta’s ‘Medicine’ edition. These pieces allowed us to think of literature and medicine in the form of poetry – both on the page (Natural Death Handbook) and on the stage (Matt,) creative non-fiction (Granta’s ‘The Perfect Code’,) and literary criticism (Sontag).

Imperial College Global Health students with Dr Barnett at the commemorative John Snow water pump, Soho.

The second Medical Humanities session was an absolute treat: my good friend Dr Richard Barnett offered his expertise as Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow and Historian of Medicine, and took the class on a guided walk of John Snow’s cholera-ridden Soho: we spent about two hours tromping the paths in present-day Soho where Dr Snow himself traced the 1854 cholera epidemic. After a wonderful tour, we decamped to the John Snow pub for a pint, and the following morning the students threw themselves into a debate about a ‘modern day’ example of needing a ‘John Snow’ – during the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti, the details of which we read about at this wonderful website on John Snow from UCLA.

If you’re interested in the ‘Death by Cholera’ walk, you can take yourself on it with a smartphone by using the Sick City Project app, to which I’ve lent my voice as part of the guide.

The third Humanities in Global Health session focused on ‘Tuberculosis in the arts’. We began with a series of case studies: Opera – La Boheme and La Traviata, and the modern musical Moulin Rouge! We looked at the death of Mimi in La Boheme, the death of Violetta in La Traviata, and the death of Satine in Moulin Rouge! (from a film clip). We thought about Sontag’s TB cliches / stereotypes in light of the examples.

Then, we moved on to looking at the life of poet John Keats, and reading ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘ and ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci,’ both of which have many references to paleness and death – could it be TB, or is it the traditional ‘Romantic’ vision of the grave? (‘Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;’)

(Keats nursed his brother, Tom, until Tom died of TB, and Keats himself died of TB – and Keats also trained as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, London – so knew what fate awaited him when he first coughed up blood.)

For our last case study we considered the painter Edvard Munch, especially his painting ‘The Sick Child,’ an image of his 15-year-old sister on her deathbed, which he obsessively painted again and again. (Munch’s mother and sister both died of TB.)

The students had the opportunity for artistic expression with some drawing time, and many of them made relevant parallels to our case studies in their artwork; as the conversation progressed, we made links to the isolation of hospitals and illness, and the response to something sad (such as Munch’s ‘The Sick Child’) with wanting to draw or express something happy (such as riding a bike). We discussed TB in London today, and how the case studies are relevant in some ways, but very different (especially in light of modern medicine & understanding of TB) in others.

For our next session, we’re going to focus on Philip Roth’s novel Nemesis, a devastating story about a polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944.

4 thoughts on “Teaching Humanities in Global Health, Part II

  1. “…we made links to the isolation of hospitals and illness, and the response to something sad (such as Munch’s ‘The Sick Child’) with wanting to draw or express something happy (such as riding a bike).” This reminds me of “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. I seem to recall reading that he saw this image while treating a patient with a terminal disease, although I can’t remember what the disease was.

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