Medical (In)humanities at UCL

By Sarah Marks.

University College London’s German Department, in collaboration with scholars in Mental Health Sciences, Psychoanalysis, and Slavonic and East European Studies, has recently launched an interdisciplinary research programme on the theme of ‘Medical (In)humanities’. The project aims to explore instances where medical thought and practice has contributed to inhumanity, using this inversion to better understand what is meant by ‘humane’ behaviour. Such questions are particularly pertinent in the historical context of National Socialist Germany, with the Tiergartenstrasse 4 campaign, and numerous abuses in the name of ‘medical research’.

The obvious pun on the field of the Medical Humanities opens up further questions about the place of medicine in broader areas of culture in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century period. As Tim Beasley-Murray of UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies states:

“One by now rather clichéd figure that has drawn a lot of attention in this context is that of the physician writer (that is to say, writers are also medical doctors or who have received medical training), a figure whose tradition reaches right back into antiquity where Apollo was the Greek god of both medicine and poetry. While one needs to be suspicious of some of the things that are said about physician writers and of the emphasis on the biographical that such statements entail, there is no doubt that the practice of medicine and the practice of literature have a lot in common: both medicine and literature may be thought of as therapeutic practices; both have mortality and the importance of the somatic as central concerns; both seek to look under the surface of phenomena, often diagnosing sickness and prescribing cures.

In celebrated cases, such as that of Arthur Schnitzler (Austrian, 1862-1931), for example, it is clear that Schnitzler’s hypodermic view of Viennese fin-de-siècle society and his emphasis on the erotic owe a great deal to his day job as a doctor. The literary history of Central and Eastern Europe is rich with physician writers. These include less well-known figures like Géza Csáth (1887-1919), the Hungarian self-prescribing morphine addict and suicide, and Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956), the Slovak author of the ‘medical novel’, The Atoms of God, set in a 1920s Prague clinic for venereal diseases, as well as better known writers like Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian, 1891-1940), Anton Chekhov (Russian, 1860-1904), Stanisław Lem (Polish, 1921-2006), and Vladislav Vančura (Czech, 1891-1942).”

Medical Humanities, which as a field has grown up as an adjunct to medical education, often uses examples from literature, history, the arts and social sciences as a means of training practitioners in questions of ethics and the emotional aspects of medicine. The scholars working on the Medical (In)humanities project chose their title deliberately, as “a provocative response to the field”. This, in turn, implicitly suggests that the medical humanities lack critical insight. While this may be true of some university programmes linked explicitly to the goal of medical education, it is certainly not the case for many historians of medicine, a number of whom are overtly influenced by writers such as Ivan Illych, Michel Foucault or the anti-psychiatry and service-user/patient movements, or the related interdisciplinary field of ‘science studies’. I would be interested to know how readers of this blog perceive the field of medical humanities: is it a field that many of you associate yourselves with, and is it one where critical reflection on the aims and practice of medicine is encouraged? Is this perhaps dependent on local university traditions and funding structures?

Many historians of our region deal with instances of ‘medical inhumanity’, and the concept is a useful one for dealing with the ethical arguments surrounding eugenics movements in Central and Eastern Europe, and later with the political abuses of psychiatry for punitive purposes in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Recent findings also reveal that West German pharmaceutical companies bribed East German doctors and collaborated with the Stasi to carry out ethically dubious trials in the GDR, with a number of reported resultant deaths. But it is important that we do not over-represent such instances as being somehow broadly representative of medical practice in the region, or indeed peculiar to it. Moreover, the debates surrounding eugenics, psychiatry and drug trials in particular – both within the region and elsewhere – are testament to the flexibility of understandings of humanity and inhumanity across different periods and under different political regimes, and reiterate that such categories are themselves historically contingent.

With thanks to Stephanie Bird and Tim Beasley-Murray for permission to reprint their quotations. More information on UCL’s Medical (In)humanities can be found here, and updates on events or publications associated with the project will be posted on the CEEHM Network Blog in future.