Humanising the science of the body

The great polymaths of history suggest the fecundity of a multidisciplinary approach for discovering things about people and the world. 

Perhaps the most important Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, painted great artworks, designed machinery, built structures, wrote philosophical notes, dissected bodies, drew intricate anatomical illustrations and contributed to botanical and mathematical knowledge. 

The legacy of his work endures; if anything, we find ourselves increasingly astonished by so imaginative an approach to the adventure of learning. But we don't have to be gifted to appreciate that our understanding is considerably enriched when we draw on the wisdom of several spheres of learning rather than confining our minds to one. 

This was our starting point at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser) in beginning to challenge the total division in this country between the scientific study of human health and illness, and the efforts made by the humanistic disciplines to understand the same subjects. 

In several countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, scholars began some decades ago to realise that much was lost in the separation of medical science from the arts and social sciences, and in response many universities in these places established vibrant centres of study concerned with a field of knowledge called "medical humanities". 

These centres seek to bring into dialogue work done by medical scientists, health practitioners, anatomists, forensic scientists and others with the writings and insights generated by literary scholars, fine artists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers and psychologists. 

Indeed, in many of these universities, medical schools have required budding medics to take courses in art appreciation or patient narratives or creative writing. 

Putting a face to medicine
These schools have wanted to humanise the study of science through approaches that animate questions of suffering, lived experience and communication rather than focusing only on scientific modes of diagnosis, treatment and cure.

In South Africa, and in Africa as a whole, there is not a single centre for the medical humanities. Though there are a number of scholars here whose research interests could be gathered under a "medical humanities" rubric, the absence of institutionalised interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and medicine is perplexing, particularly given the enormously politicised and iniquitous history of South African health and medicine during the 20th century. 

In response to this strange situation, we set out to bring our colleagues in the medical fields and in the humanities into conversation with one another. 

This will take the form of an international conference that Wiser is convening called Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation, from September 2 to 4 at the Wits School of Public Health.

The conference has a bold ambition: to place the medical humanities as a vibrant field of enquiry firmly on to the scholarly agenda in South Africa. 

The programme features presentations by more than 80 speakers, whose papers will include the body as a site of knowledge; body parts in culture, history, art and literature; metaphors and representations of health and illness; politics and power relations in medicine and health research; and the history of race and medicine. 

Rutgers University historian Julie Livingston will deliver the opening speech, titled Figuring the Tumour: Photography, Self and Cancer.  

On the first evening of the conference, delegates will gather at the Origins Centre to view the exhibition A Fine Line, which places in conversation the anatomical illustrations and later fine art of acclaimed South African artist Colin Richards. Its curator, fine artist Penny Siopis, and Wiser director Sarah Nuttall will hold a public discussion on the exhibition. 

We hope this will constitute the beginning of a long-term endeavour to bring to the fore an ongoing and fertile dialogue between medicine and the humanities in South Africa. 

Catherine Burns and Ashlee Masterson are researchers at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. For more information on the conference from September 2 to 4, Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation, go to

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