Conference Thoughts


Health History in Action

In late August, the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH), of which I am now a co-director, hosted something special: Health History in Action, the Society for the Social History of Medicine’s Career Development Workshop and Postgraduate Conference. Thirty-five PhD students from fifteen countries came to Ross Priory to the bonny banks of Loch Lomond to get to know each other, present their research and talk about the potential history has for informing how we think about health and disease.  Sprinkled with occasional sunshine and slightly more occasional rain, the students got a good taste of Scotland’s hospitality and rugged good looks, and I like to think that CSHHH – in the midst of tenth anniversary celebrations – came out looking pretty good, too.

I was especially proud of our own students, all nine of them, who did a heck of a lot of the organising and gave stimulating, exciting papers.  Stacked up beside PhD students from Harvard, Edinburgh and the European University Institute, I was impressed with how confident and well-spoken they all were.  I should know this – many of them have won prestigious Wellcome Trust funding (I should mention at this point that the Welcome Trust funded our conference very generously), but it was great to see it in the flesh, so to speak.

We had our challenges, mainly of the transportation variety.  For some reason, cabs didn’t show up, coaches got lost and buses broke down, but my student organisers stayed calm and carried on.  Everything else went smoothly, so much so that, just today, I announced another conference – Preventing Mental Illness: Past, Present and Future – that will also be held at Ross Priory.


Society for the Social History of Medicine – Queen Mary University

I had some reservations leading up to the SSHM’s biannual conference at Queen Mary University, hosted by the Centre for the History of Emotions.  First, I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to ride a Boris bike all the way to Mile End (you can, but I ended up taking the tube); second, I was concerned that I’d struggle to find accommodation, given that the conference was during the Paralympics (had no trouble whatsoever); but third, and most importantly, I wasn’t convinced about the theme of the conference – the Emotions.

For a conference hosted by the Centre for the History of Emotions, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised that they’d want to have such a theme.  But all the same, I was a bit sceptical.  This was partly because I thought the theme might discourage people from applying, but mainly because emotions aren’t my thing.  Sure, I get emotional from time to time – usually at really embarrassing moments – but I’ve always fancied myself as more of a rationalist, an ideas man, a historian of knowledge, not all that emotional stuff.

Midway into the conference, after I’d done my own panel and was bouncing around from session to session, I’d changed my mind.  My fellow historians had done an excellent job exploring emotions in a way that I found interesting.  The panels were intelligently organised, they generated good questions and everyone seemed on good form.  I still hope that the next SSHM conference, in Oxford/Oxford Brookes, will have a more open theme – some people were put off – but they’ll have a hard time equalling the folks at Queen Mary.


Transcultural Psychiatry and the Subversion of Global Mental Health

On a Saturday morning in the middle of August, when I wished I was doing any number of other things, I locked up my bike, changed my sodden shirt – a thick, persistent drizzle had been my companion on the bike path – and wearily made my way up the stairs to discuss something called transcultural psychiatry with five other seemingly masochistic, but actually quite nice, academics.  What’s transcultural psychiatry, you ask.  Good question.  I wished I could give you an answer, but we struggled to define it during the course of the session, although we could safely blame that on the fact that there were a couple of philosophers in the room.  Basically, it’s the idea that different cultures have different ideas about mental health and mental illness.  Pretty straight forward and fairly sensible, you might say.  And I’d agree, but things are never quite that easy.

The interesting thing about our little workshop was that one of the participants, a clinical psychologist, was launching a new MSc in Global Mental Health.  What’s global mental health?  Well, as far as I can tell, it’s kind of the opposite of transcultural psychiatry.  It’s basically the idea that vast numbers of the world’s population are mentally ill (or at least presenting the symptoms of western mental disorders) and are in need of therapy (read: drugs).  What’s interesting about this guy’s new programme, is that the organiser seems dead set against the notion of global mental health, or, in other words, the idea that we should be diagnosing people in Sri Lanka, Malawi and Peru with western (chiefly American) mental disorders.  We should certainly help them, but not by labelling them OCD for being overly concerned about putting food on the table.  Anyway, this fellow seems to be attacking the concept of global mental health from the inside, a trojan horse filled with subtle anti-establishment rhetoric, you might say.  And I say, more power to you, pal!  Maybe instead of railing against medical globalisation and biomedicine in history journals, more of us should try to fit at it from the inside, surreptitiously dressed in our sheep’s clothing.  It might not be any more effective, but the looks on their faces when they clue in would be priceless.

Medical Anthropology vs. History of Medicine

During a recent trip to Ottawa, I made two visits to the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, the shining beacon of Canadian museums.  Along with their permanent exhibits on Canadian First Nations groups, including their showpiece totem pole gallery (it probably has an official name, but if you’ve been there you know what I’m talking about), they had a brilliant exhibit on Mayan culture, which catapulted the Yucatan peninsula into my top 5 of places to visit before I take off for the happy hunting ground.  It was fascinating and stoked me up good and proper for the first thing I had scheduled for my return to the UK, a medical anthropology conference at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London.

As I entered the lecture hall at the RAI, I instantly felt at home.  This was not because I know anything about anthropology, but instead because hung on all four walls were pictures of North American aboriginal groups, and many hailing from what we now know as Canada.  Visits to Canada often make me feel how small and insignificant our little/big country is, but the sight of Inuit, Dene and Haida Gwaii people decorating such a prestigious location made me feel proud to be a Canuck and, like the CMC in Gatineau, made me think about a parallel Matt Smith, spending his days learning about the Inuit of Baffin Island and getting a taste for muktuk (google it).

Although the conference didn’t necessarily leave me wishing that I was a medical anthropologist, it did make me think a great deal, particularly about the differences between it and medical history.  Whereas history, including medical history, has always balanced uncomfortably between the humanities and the social sciences, medical anthropology knows exactly where it belongs, and that is in the latter camp, and often with the emphasis on the word sciences.  Medical anthropologists work in the field, collecting data with the end goal of developing theories that help explain how societies deal with illness.  They seem more comfortable coming up with answers to questions than many medical historians I know, which may or may not be a good thing.  Historians, myself included, tend to keep asking why questions ad nauseum, much like a 4-year-old, making the answer to any question seem fleeting at best.  Unlike the medical humanities, and moreso than medical history, medical anthropology seemes to know where its going and is co nfident that it’s the right direction to go.  I’m not sure if they’re correct, but I wish them all the best anyway.  As for me, I’ll keep on asking questions.

Medical Humanities vs. History of Medicine

Somewhere during the middle of a quite enjoyable symposium on the medical humanities, to which I had been invited to participate, I realised the difference between medical humanities, a somewhat amorphous new field of inquiry that seeks to reconcile the humanities and medicine (or perhaps medicine and humanities – I’m never sure which), and medical history.  I summed it up in the (admittedly very silly) equation:

Δ MH[Medical Humanities] and HoM [History of Medicine] = Change

This realisation thrilled me to pieces, although I’m confident it will mean sweet bugger all to anyone else.  I think what I mean by it is that whereas people working in the MH, whether they be literary critics, philosophers, artists, or physicians with a humanistic bent, seem to have more of a faith in the universal nature of medical knowledge – whether they accord with accepted medical practice or rail against it – most medical historians are schooled to think that such knowledge is historically contingent.  It changes over time.  In other words, medical humanists (not sure if that is the correct term) seem to seek truth and medical historians seem to seek understanding, which doesn’t necessarily involve any truth whatsoever.  While people in MH seem somewhat divided over whether such ‘truth-seeking’ should be rooted in a particular a priori theory or whether a ‘let 1000 flowers bloom’ approach should be adopted, historians, being most un-humanistic, are stuck with our own crazy version of empiricism – trying to let the sources speak for themselves.  Since medical history has certainly flirted with the theoretically-based and Feyerabend-esque 1000 flowers approaches (and some still do, it must be said), and has largely found them to be wanting, I think the MH will probably struggle in competing with HoM for predominance until it figures this out, too.  Which might then just leave us with HoM (he said smugly).  Or of course I could just be a bit tired on a Saturday night and a wee bit bitter that I should have spent the day down in Carlisle watching my beloved Exeter City get relegated.  There’s always next year…


Just Showing Up

I’ve often set myself little goals when going to conferences, to keep myself on my toes or to make sure I’m getting as much out of the experience as possible.  When I was doing my PhD, I might have challenged myself to ask a question that wasn’t too daft, or not to sound too much like a plonk when asked by a random superstar historian what I thought of this paper or that.  Other times, my goals have been somewhat more modest, such as not to get so plastered on cheap wine at the conference dinner that I make an ass of myself and fall asleep during the morning session the next day.  Sometimes, I have succeeded in achieving such goals; other times I have failed miserably, such as the time I was so excited about meeting superstar historian, Professor Supremo Cogitator, that I gushed, in the inimitable way only a drunken Canadian PhD student can manage, about his new book.  Unfortunately, I had got the title of his book mixed up with a much less prestigious one written by someone no one has ever heard of.  I still cling to hope was that he was more sloshed than I was and hasn’t remembered.

I had a different goal heading up to the European Social Science History conference, which was hosted by the University of Glasgow last week – simply get to my session on time.  Originally, I had been a trifle more ambitious.  I had organised a panel comparing approaches to ADHD in different countries and was quite excited about meeting the people I had invited (cajoled) into participating.  Then, one of the panelists dropped out, a panelist doing something quite different was added, and, most importantly, the programme came out, indicating that we were scheduled for 8:30 am.  My ambition of staging a legendary panel that would set the benchmark for all subsequent sessions for decades hence quickly devolved into the faint hope that I would simply get there on time.

Normally, 8:30 wouldn’t be an issue.  Heck, when I worked as a greens keeper at a golf course, we started at 5am (which nearly killed me, but I did get there on time).  No, the problem was that my wife Michelle was going to be out of town for the first time since the birth of our son Dashiell, nearly 18 months before.  I would have to find a way to get Dash to nursery by 8am, then get down to Glasgow University from Milngavie by 8:30.  After planning numerous scenarios for achieving this involving trains, taxis, buses, cars, teleportation device and hot air balloons, I realised in a fit of inspiration, that the best way to get there was how I usually get anywhere – by bicycle.

The big day arrived.  An awful lot could go wrong.  Dash could sleep in.  I could sleep in.  It could snow.  The nursery staff could go on strike.  My bike could break down (it had the previous week).  I could get into an accident.  I could get lost.  I could get mugged (I live in Glasgow, after all).  No one might show up to the panel (well, I kind of expected this).  But in the end, everything went fine.  Dash woke up at the perfect hour, the bike ride was smooth, and at least 5 people outside of the panel showed up (why they schedule 8:30 papers, I have no idea).  I even kept to time, which is a goal I often set for myself and never achieve.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything else about one of the largest history conferences in Europe.  Having got to the panel on time and having spat out my paper in a decipherable fashion, I figured that was about all I could expect of myself.  I chatted with Charlotte, the Norwegian I had invited, took some notes about books I’d order for the library, met a friend for coffee, and picked Dash up from nursery.  Sure it’s great to set lofty goals and achieve them, but sometimes, the little ones are just as satisfactory.


The (Eu)Stress of Life

I just attended the ‘Stress of Life’ conference at the University of Exeter.  It was brilliant.  I go to a lot of conferences, as do most historians, and often they seem to fade together into much of a muchness. The same people, the same arguments, the same story.  That might be harsh, but sometimes, when I’m going over my expenses or waiting for a delayed train or flight, I wonder why did I bother?  Not the case this time.  Mark Jackson did a fantastic job organising a stimulating series of talks which seemed to flow together effortlessly.  Although there were no dud papers (well, maybe mine – I was told I went overtime, but the clock was behind me and – you’re right there’s no excuse ), the sum total of what the speakers had to say about the history of stress, the relationship between psyche and soma, and what it says about post-war society flirted with the profound.  I think when the edited volume comes out, people will really be in for a treat, as they were when his last edited volume Health and the Modern Home.  Of course, as a former Exeter man, I am hopelessly biased – and probably also influenced by the warm feelings generated by meeting old and dear friends, but I am confident that the Stress of Life will be a point of reference for me for years to come.