Medical Humanities

Medical Humanities and Health Humanities is a broad field, encompassing areas as diverse as the history of medicine, medical ethics and law, pedagogy in physician training, and medical anthropology. In addition, doctor-writers from John Keats to Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nawal el Saadawi have written about the great dramas of human life and existence, while artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo have used lived experience of physical and mental health issues to inform their art.

Skeleton contemplating a skull,
by Juan de Valverde.
Image © 2005 Edinburgh University Library

IASH has hosted fellows across the Medical and Health Humanities since the 1980s. These have included visits by Prof. Leopoldo Acuna of the University of La Plata, Argentina to research the use of medical aesthetics in physician training, Prof. Robert Veatch of Georgetown University on 19th century dialogues between physicians and humanists, Dr Poonam Bala of the University of Delhi examining the role of Scottish doctors in British India, and Dr Tanja Bukovcan from the University of Zagreb to research ethnographic methodologies in clinical interviews.

More recently, Fellows have included Dr Col. Stephen Craig of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who researched the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on military medicine, philosopher Prof. Leemon McHenry and historian Prof. Soraya de Chadarevian. Prof. David Purdie has been an Honorary Fellow since 2012, and long-time IASH supporter Alexander McCall Smith is Emeritus Professor of Medical Law in the School of Law. This area exemplifies IASH’s characteristic interest in the links between the humanities (broadly understood) and surrounding disciplines, and in the novel activities to which such links can give rise.

We continue to encourage applications from scholars working across Medical and Health Humanities.

There is a wealth of diverse research and teaching activities in medical humanities already underway at the University of Edinburgh.  This is a rapidly developing field and we will continue to update this website to include new initiatives.

Within our College (the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences), there are two dedicated research centres in the field:

The Edinburgh Centre for Medical Anthropology (EdCMA) is located within the School of Social and Political Science. It conducts research and also runs the MSc in Medical Anthropology.

The School of Law is home to the J Kenyon Mason Institute for Medicine, Life Sciences and the Law (known as the Mason Institute). This serves as an interdisciplinary research network, aimed at investigating the interface between medicine, life sciences and the law in relation to medical and bioethical developments on a national and global scale.

Additionally, there is a new Wellcome-funded Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society based both in this College and the Edinburgh Medical School.

The University offers taught courses such as the intercalated Honours degree programmes that are offered to undergraduate medical students (both Edinburgh students and visiting medical students). These include:

New for 2018-19:

  • An intercalated Honours programme (BMedSci) in the anthropology and sociology of medicine, tied to the Edinburgh Centre for Medical Anthropology and to sociologists of health and medicine in Science, Technology and Innovation Studies.

New for 2019-20:

  • A programme relating to the social, ethical and legal aspects of medicine, connected to the Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics.

Our College also has several academics who work on these topics in additional ways.

  • For example, Dr Chisomo Kalinga is Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Fellow in the Centre of African Studies and works on oral story-telling and health in Malawi. Other projects within African Studies also have a health and medical focus.
  • Prof. Charlotte Clarke is Professor of Health in Social Science, College Dean International and EFI Director of Global Communities, with research interests such as wellbeing in ageing, and dementia care in international contexts. Numerous colleagues within the School of Health in Social Science are undertaking research into the Health Humanities.
  • There is a focus on the history of medicine and of medical science within the Science, Technology and Innovation Studies subject area. STIS also offers a popular undergraduate module in the History of Medicine.
  • The History of Science, Medicine and Technology Research Group (HSMT-Ed) is an interdisciplinary research group based in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. For example, this group includes archaeological work on diet based on skeletal populations.

Beyond our College, there is considerable interest in Medical Humanities among healthcare professionals; please see the resources available at Scottish Medical Humanities, offering poetry and prose to support healthcare professionals and patients. You can also read poems by poet-doctors in the new edition of Tools of the Trade, edited by Dr John Gillies GP, Dr Lesley Morrison GP, Revd Ali Newell, Lilias Fraser and Kate Hendry.

There are a number of active student associations and societies, including the Edinburgh University Medical Ethics and Humanities Society, and One Health.

The Anatomical Museum at the University of Edinburgh displays a number of unique objects including the skull of George Buchanan (tutor to James VI), a dissected body with the lymphatic system injected with mercury, and the skeleton of notorious murderer William Burke. Although primarily used as a study space for medical students, the Museum is open to the public for one day each month.

Lastly, neighbouring the medical and health humanities are studies relating to health policy, for example within the Social Policy subject area, and studies using health data. Very important too are Scottish health-policy initiatives such as the Chief Medical Officer’s focus on Realistic Medicine (opens as PDF) which is an important spur to work in the humanities.

Edinburgh also benefits from the resources of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (the RCPE runs events including seminars that relate to medical humanities) and the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, whose museum and collections are of great importance to historians. The RCSE has also co-operated on visual arts and poetry-based initiatives using its collections.