Call for Blog Posts

We warmly invite PGRs and ECRs working on topics related to the Medical Humanities to contribute blog posts to the website for the North West Medical Humanities Postgraduate Network. Although our primary focus is North West based PGRs, we also welcome contributions from ECRs and researchers from other institutions working in the Medical Humanities. We are particularly interested in bringing together researchers from numerous disciplines, including, but not limited to, history, sociology, English literature and language, linguistics, medicine, computer science, and psychology.

Your post may discuss your work in relation to the following topics:

  • Interdisciplinary research methodologies
  • Medical spaces and landscapes
  • Medicine and literature
  • Medicines as emotional and material objects
  • Medicine and the senses
  • Policy and healthcare
  • Photography
  • Linguistic and corpus-based approaches
  • Your academic journey or career so far
  • Reports on conferences, seminars, or workshops relevant for Medical Humanities scholars
  • Public Engagement and Impact in the Medical Humanities

We are keen to publicise research being done by PGRs and ECRs, and to facilitate conversations and collaborations between researchers working on medical humanities projects in the North West and beyond. Blog posts should be no more than about 1600 words and can include appropriately credited images within the texts. We would be happy to discuss ideas for blog pieces with prospective authors, so please do get in touch. Authors should send their blog posts or ideas for posts, along with a short biography and contact information to

We look forward to hearing from you.



Horrible Histories? Navigating Public Engagement and Ethics as a Medical Humanities PGR

A Balancing Act

This blog post draws on personal experiences of doing public engagement events to talk about some of the ethical issues that we might confront as researchers in the Medical Humanities when we present our work to the public. In discussing what we’ve learned in hindsight, we hope that others might be able to feel more confident and prepared in similar situations.

Doing public engagement events as a PGR can be intimidating. In addition to our PhD, teaching, conference attendance, and publication pressures, we are expected to take on public engagement projects that constitute new territory for us. We often have to independently figure out how to present our work in ways that are both accessible without being patronizing and engaging without being pandering. We want our audiences to be interested in our work and excited about the topic we study, but we don’t want to risk oversimplifying complex historical phenomenon. It is key to be able to communicate our work to the public in a way that does justice to the topics and, more importantly, to the people we study, in a way that sparks an interest from non-specialists. This is a difficult task at the best of times, but it becomes even more complicated when the topics we research concern vulnerable, historically marginalized, or stigmatized groups of people. Despite these intricacies and complexities, it is rare that we are provided with training in how to actually do public engagement.


Morbid Fascination and the Medical Humanities

Don’t be surprised if people mostly want to hear about grisly, gory, and sinister stories. As part of the promotional activities for an exhibition that we held in Lancaster called ‘The Doctor Will See You Now: Lancashire’s Medical Past’, we had a 10-minute slot on a radio station to promote our event. We were prepared to talk about so many different angles of our research (Viva style with reams of complex notes) and were actually totally unprepared for what the presenters asked us. Much to our horror, they asked us about elements of our research that we rarely delve into in great depth: they wanted to know about blood-letting, trepanning, and extreme pain. While our work orientates around the patient perspective, this is not what we actually study. We were then in quite an uncomfortable position of basing our answers on things that are at the periphery of our research topics.

In hindsight, these questions do make sense: pain is a common human experience, and can provide a familiar point of reference. People try to place themselves in well-known surgical procedures of the past, and even try to imagine how painful these procedures could be. From this perspective, these questions are to be expected. While there is certainly a sense of morbid fascination here, some of these questions also stem from a genuine sense of empathy and a desire to understand what people might have felt before anaesthetic and other medical developments.


Photographs of Campus in the City Exhibition ‘The Doctor Will See You Now: Lancashire’s Medical Past’ (March 2018)


Working with the Public Vs Working with Medical Professionals

Something that I have found very useful in thinking about how I might present aspects of my work that carry significant ethical implications has been to present my ideas to medical professionals. This might sound a bit strange, and it’s by no means a pre-requisite for doing public engagement, but in my case collaborating with a practicing medical doctor helped me to feel more confident in taking my research to a broader public audience. An off-shoot project of my PhD has been a study of the use of malaria treatment to treat neurosyphilis – or General Paralysis of the Insane – in twentieth-century asylums. As I’m sure you can imagine, this was a particularly delicate subject, not only because many of the patients being discussed died as a direct result of this treatment (for which their consent was not sought), but also because of the implications of this topic to contemporary discussions about mental competence and treatment decisions.

I co-presented this research on the use of malaria treatment in early twentieth-century asylums at a public workshop alongside a practicing psychiatrist. By collaborating with a practising psychiatrist, I felt more confident in my knowledge of the procedure that was used, and the medical rationale that underwrote it which helped me to engage more confidently in discussions during the workshop. The majority of attendees were also practicing mental health nurses, and this again was enormously helpful in thinking about how to frame such a delicate topic. As such I would certainly encourage the fostering of collaborations with medical practitioners, not only on the basis of what we, as students of the medical humanities, might offer them, but also what they are able to teach us. This experience really emphasized the importance of co-production for me, not only with service users but also with practitioners, and I found some of the insights offered during this workshop really useful taking my work forward, and also in thinking about how I might go about presenting this research to a more general audience.


Confidentiality and Privacy

A huge consideration when presenting research about medical history is how to deal with issues of patient privacy. Even for those of us who work with records and cases that are available under the one-hundred-year rule, the idea of presenting intimate details about someone’s medical history to a public audience can be unsettling. For me, this is equally balanced with an acute awareness that the history I research and write is made up of the stories of the people who populate the casebooks with which I work, and that it is important that these stories are heard. There’s also significant rhetorical value in using case histories when you’re presenting a complex idea to a general audience that should not be underestimated. It can be extremely effective to tether complex ideas and large-scale historical changes to a narrative, and often this narrative takes the form of a case study.

I certainly believe that there are valid reasons for using case studies and patient stories in public engagement work, but I think that this should be done in a sensitive manner. Personally, I prefer to partially anonymize patients’ names, using their first name and the first letter of their surname, so Joe Blogs would become Joe B. I have never anonymized patients first names in public presentations because I believe it’s important that our audiences recognize that these individuals were real people. Equally, I choose to anonymize patients’ surnames because I wish to respect the fact that, although I have access to their casebooks, the patients whose cases they report may not have wanted me to read them.

I personally find this to be the point of compromise that feels to me like it respects patients’ privacy without dehumanizing them. It’s important, of course, to ensure that you comply with any rules and regulations surrounding the use of medical sources set out by your institution, archives, hospital trusts and any other regulatory bodies who may be relevant to your research. However, it’s also important to trust your gut on these issues. My institution and my archives do not require that I anonymize patient names at all – my sources all freely available under the hundred-year rule, but for me it feels respectful, and ethically sound to partially anonymize patients’ identities.


Historical Complexity

The people and perspectives that we study are multifaceted; however, the complexity of our research topics is not necessarily always conducive to a coherent exhibition or event. As such, how are we meant to showcase our research without oversimplifying in a way that detracts or undermines the experiences of the people we study?

It is important to not underestimate or patronise your non-specialist audience. We were pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement we received at our exhibition on Lancashire’s Medical Past, where people asked probing questions that we had not anticipated. Here, the importance of co-creation is apparent; when you treat the voice of the audience as an equally valid one with critical insights to offer, your research can flourish and change in ways you had not expected.

That being said, some aspects of research do need to be simplified for coherency in a public engagement context. Due to the format of public engagement, especially when it orientates around an exhibition, you do not want materials that look like a journal article. Think about the format, and think what is appropriate. We removed footnotes from textual materials and summarised points in a succinct manner; for example, a point that may have spanned a whole paragraph in a journal article became one sentence. This does not necessarily mean that you have to sacrifice your research’s integrity, it just means that you need to be far more economical with how you convey what you actually mean. This can then be very helpful in a research and writing context – you are forced to succinctly articulate what you mean and what the point of the activity, event, or exhibition is. This practice was actually helpful when it came to writing a draft introduction for my thesis, as I had already had to summarise my research in an ‘elevator pitch’ style.


The Benefits of Public Engagement

Working with the public has helped our development as researchers, presenters, and teachers, and the events discussed have helped us to think about our research differently. Public engagement is a good and productive thing in itself, but from a practical perspective, public engagement and the impact agenda aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re becoming more important and PGRs are increasingly expected to demonstrate an awareness of these elements in academic job interviews. There is also something very satisfying about seeing your work reaching a wider audience, and hearing the thoughts and ideas of a completely different demographic to that which you will encounter at academic conferences and seminars.

 Although this blog has discussed the challenges that arise when we’re seeking to present ethically complex topics to the public, it isn’t meant to discourage people from doing public engagement work. We hope that by opening up a discussion of some ethical issues in public engagement we can support each other to feel more capable of pursuing these projects in the Medical Humanities.


Erin Bramwell and Natalie Mullen

Co-founders of the North West Medical Humanities PG Network

The PhD ‘Second Year Slump’

Based on conversations I’ve had with PGR and ECR colleagues, a PhD ‘slump’ is a very common experience. It typically occurs between the middle of second year and the start of third year, and is notorious for causing distress, difficulties with writing, and problems with productivity more broadly. This post is designed to give reassurance and some practical advice on how to manage the slump, and even how to dig yourself out of it.

In May of this year, I had my PhD confirmation, or second year ‘upgrade’. The months that followed were some of the hardest I have ever experienced. They were harder than overcoming bouts of depression in my MA year. They were harder than the first few weeks of my PhD, when I struggled to grapple with the enormity of my research topic. They were even harder than the months leading up to spinal surgery that I had four years ago. I cannot remember a time when I had felt as drained, hopeless, and despairing as I had in my second year slump.

The appraisers in my confirmation and my supervisor had been incredibly positive, yet that did not directly translate into a positive frame of mind or a positive working attitude. In spite of my passion for my PhD topic and all that surrounds it, I found myself totally lacking in motivation and energy. I felt like everything I had worked on thus far was completely worthless, and that there was no way it was ever going to become a whole thesis. In the first week, I attributed these feelings to tiredness following my confirmation. However, the days continued to drag, I continued to get out of bed later and later each day (despite being a habitually early riser), and I believed that the rest of my PhD was completely unachievable.

In carrying this crushing belief around with me on a daily basis, I couldn’t write. Any morsels that I did manage to write were immediately relegated to the ‘Spare Parts’ file on my laptop. I kept comparing my unproductive state to my previous hyper-productivity – something that Dr George Gosling has written about on his blog. While this was problematic in the immediate term due to deadlines (that PGRs and academics are all too aware of), it was also highly distressing. Like many others, my sense of self-worth is intimately bound up in my PhD, my research, and my writing. As such, the state of my writing usually reflects my physical and mental state. In addition, when I can’t write, I become even more distressed. It’s a vicious cycle.

Until meeting Dr Mark Benson at this year’s Social History Society Conference at Keele University in June, I did not have a phrase or point of reference for this experience. Mark asked me what year of my PhD I was in, to which I answered that I was in my second year. He immediately fired back with ‘Ah, so you’re experiencing the second year slump?’. I had not realised that what I was experiencing was so common, or that it actually had a name.

It has more than a name. In fact, when I asked academics how they would describe this experience in one word or phrase, a whole range of emotional associations were attached to this phrase. Words like ‘inertia’, ‘paralysis’, and ‘despair’ were given on Twitter. Those who replied elaborated on these words, explaining how it affected them and their work. Here are a few select examples:

Dr Katherine Rawling:It felt like I didn’t write anything for ages – I couldn’t find the words. I wish I’d just kept writing, writing anything, no matter what the quality…’

Natalie Mullen:It felt like the combination of decreased motivation and increased workload – lots of procrastination and burying my head in the sand. I wish I’d taken a proper break to reignite motivation rather than bashing my head against the wall every day trying to “power through”’. 

Dr Hannah Elizabeth Kershaw:Purgatory. As imagined by Pullman with swathes of dead (thoughts) in grey scale & harpies zipping about the place yelling about deadlines. The only reassuring thought was that it happens to everyone and does go away.’

Dr George Gosling:My late second-year/early third-year slump, or really total collapse, was probably what people in many other lines of work would recognise as “burn out”.’

After pondering over this, I think there are many reasons why this might occur.

A few ideas:

– Post-confirmation or upgrade, you have a realistic idea of how much you have left to do. Even if the comments you have received are positive, the rest of your PhD is no longer an endless stretch of abstract time. You are fully aware of the flaws in your work, and that you have a limited amount of time to address them.

– Working for long stretches of time without taking time off. Many of us try to ‘power through’, with a smattering of half-hearted days off here and there. However, there’s a huge difference between procrastination and an inability to work. Sometimes you need to force yourself to write with strict, disciplined structures, but sometimes you just need to stop.

– The realities of the job market. As you enter your second and third year, you are no longer a ‘first-year’ – you can no longer distance yourself from the icy winds of the academic job market. When this is combined with deadlines and end-of-PhD-stress, it can be a lot to juggle on a daily basis.

– Academic structures and how they affect mental health. This has been written about extensively; for more on this, see the work of Laura Sefton and Dr Catherine Oakley.

In late August, I had a bit of breakthrough, and my PhD started to feel more feasible again. Although this feeling does eventually go away, and difficult structures continue to exist within academia, there were a few things that made a real difference to my daily life during this period.

Some practical suggestions:

– Exercise, but in particular, exercise that requires intense concentration and coordination. I upped my practice of yoga to five days a week, instead of one day a week. I mixed home yoga practice (Yoga with Adriene on Youtube is a great way of doing yoga for free), with yoga practice at a studio in Lancaster. The practice of yoga requires deep concentration – particularly due to the way in which yoga poses necessitate balance. In these classes, you can’t be thinking about the structure of your thesis, or you’ll probably fall over. I added to this by using meditation apps like Headspace (Calm is also a good option) – which you can try for free.

– Take time off, and take it seriously. Turn off your mobile phone (if you can), do not check your emails, do not go on Twitter (if you use it for work, it’s work!), and even store your laptop somewhere (I often give it to my mother for safe keeping). Be committed to your time off.

– Find something that is personally comforting to you and integrate it into your daily routine. For me, this was a mixture of the Great British Bake Off and Gilmore Girls.

– Find a kind routine that works for you in this period. I adopted the Swedish Six-Hour Working Day. This involved being strict about the time that I woke up, as I know that I work better in the mornings, but I finished my days between 3 and 4pm. While you are technically working for fewer hours, it is far more productive and far less drawn out at a time when you’re struggling. This doesn’t work for everyone, and does involve less time checking social media, but in this crisis period it worked well for me.

– Try ‘snack writing’. Snack writing encourages you to write for between 45 minutes and 2 hours a day. When you’re deep in the PhD slump, this is far more realistic. For more on this, see Hugh Kearns and Maria Gardiner.

– Talk to other PhD students and ask them to read your work. I asked my good friend and PGR colleague, Natalie Mullen, to read a section of my work that I was convinced was utterly bin-worthy. She provided some much-needed perspective and made me realise that all my work needed was some tiny adjustments.

– Contact your supervisor. Being honest about the difficulties you are experiencing can be very reassuring. When I finally told my primary supervisor about the difficulties I was having over summer, he was very understanding, and could immediately relate to what I was experiencing.

In short, be kind to yourself. This experience is far more common than you realise.

Erin Bramwell

1+3 PhD Candidate, Lancaster University

Co-founder of the North West Medical Humanities PG Network



New Organising Committee Members

In an earlier blog post this summer, we announced that the North West Medical Humanities PG Network was growing. We’ve now have an additional two members in our organizing committee and who will be developing the Network’s future events and projects. In this post, Andreea Ros and Frank Thorpe tell us a little bit about themselves, their research and their ambitions for the Network.


I am about to enter the third year of my full time PhD which investigates how Gothic narratives about contagion reflect and reinforce popular beliefs about health and wellbeing at moments of crisis and change. My research is highly interdisciplinary: I compare the portrayal of contagion as Gothic in literary and medical texts, both during 19th century contagion scares and during contemporary emerging infectious disease epidemics like HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola. It’s a beast of a project because I work with different periods and different text genres, but, luckily, medical humanities don’t just accommodate interdisciplinarity, but encourages it. I have a background in literature and gender studies, not history, and getting to grips with the medical history part of my research was difficult at first. I didn’t feel comfortable making authoritative claims about history since I am not a historian. But participating in medical humanities conferences and research networks and meeting other PhDs doing similar work (and facing similar challenges) have helped enormously to improve my confidence when working with historical questions. I wanted to become part of the organising committee for the North West Medical Humanities Postgraduate Network to help share in the work that I’ve already benefited so much from.

A monster being fed baskets of infants and excreting them with horns; symbolising vaccination and its effects. Etching by C. Williams, 1802?. CC. Wellcome Collection.

My hope for the network is that, in addition to our conference, we will be able to gain funding for and organise smaller events. Given that many PhD students feel almost overwhelming pessimism at the prospect of joining the post-PhD job market, I am particularly interested in events with a clear focus on employability. The first project I will try to get off the ground is a journal article writing workshop. I am part of a PhD writing group at MMU and I’ve written most of my thesis either in meetings of group or while on writing retreats. Writing alongside other PhD students means that you always have someone willing to talk through ideas with you or share advice on how to get over writer’s block, or just share in your frustrations and successes. I’ve also found that writing with other people makes academia seem less lonely and this is perhaps particularly valuable to those of us who do interdisciplinary research. Publishing peer-review articles during the PhD has become the norm, but a lot of PhD writing support is still aimed only at helping you write the thesis. I think our postgraduate network could help offer some of the support that is missing.


I am delighted to be joining the organising committee of the Network and am very excited about working with Erin, Natalie and Andreea. I thought it’d be useful to explain a bit about my research and what I am hoping to contribute. In October, I will begin my PhD (ESRC CASE NWSSDTP) on the subject of ‘changing attitudes to smell in twentieth-century British personal hygiene’ at the University of Liverpool, under the supervision of Sally Sheard (Liverpool), James Taylor (Lancaster) and Claire Tunstall (Unilever). I will be working on the ‘deodorisation’ of British society in the twentieth century, with the privilege of using extended periods in the amazing (and huge!) Unilever archives in Port Sunlight to explore attitudes towards body odour and the production and consumption of soaps and deodorants. My research (‘fascinating, but smelly’ according to one of my referees!) will be grounded in history (social, cultural, medical, business), but will be inherently multidisciplinary, drawing from sociology, anthropology and literature, for example. In terms of the relationship between my PhD and the medical humanities, key questions in my investigations will include the extent to which smell has been regarded as an indicator of poor health and, similarly, how far the production, marketing and consumption of deodorising products has been driven by medical (as opposed to social, or other) considerations. I am also interested, more broadly, in exploring how medical practices, products and ideas have been disseminated, commercialised and adopted by consumers.

London Board of Health searching the city for cholera
London Board of Health searching the city for cholera during the 1832 epidemic. Lithograph, 1832. CC. Wellcome Collection.

The medical humanities offers researchers from a wide range of disciplines a space to come together to share ideas and collaborate, which is very exciting for postgraduates and early career researchers. I am used to working across disciplines, having, in my previous studies, engaged with archaeology, literature, archival studies, museum studies and quantitative history. With my interests in the business elements of the medical humanities, I hope that I will be able to encourage more involvement from researchers in areas such as economic history, business history and management studies at future Network events. I am impressed by the opportunities for interactions beyond the world of academia that medical humanities offers, involving as it does health practitioners and creative individuals and organisations, among others. I am extremely interested in film (including public service broadcasting productions), music and art and would love to be able to engage with creative forms of presenting research, as well as investigating such media in my research. Having worked as a History teacher, I would also be interested in helping to facilitate more involvement with young people at future events.


Medical Humanities: Futures, 20-21 September 2018.

Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research, Second Congress, Weetwood Hall, Leeds. 

Professor Stuart Murray began this conference by encouraging us to think about the status of ‘Medical Humanities’. Medical Humanities is often conceptualised as a fairly new discipline, but he stressed that due to its strong foundations, there is room to think about its future. What do we hope to achieve with our research? Where is our research going? The papers that followed answered these questions with great enthusiasm; they challenged methodological and disciplinary boundaries, provoking further thought about interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, and transdisciplinary practice. As there were parallel panels at the conference, I was (unfortunately) unable to attend all of the papers, but the following paragraphs detail some of my personal highlights.

Dr Esther Jones opened the conference with her keynote, ‘The Future of Medical Ethics, Radically (Re)Imagined: Race, Gender, and the Role of the Speculative’. Jones detailed the countless state-sanctioned experiments and treatments on ethnic, racial, and sexual others, ranging from electric shock therapy to dissections. She posed that the Other has historically stood outside of the realms of ethical consideration, meaning that some bodies have perpetually been treated differently, despite the altruistic aims of medicine. However, these disturbing attitudes that we may have thought were receding are re-emerging in ways we thought we were beyond. She further argued that this failure to act ethically is ultimately a failure of the imagination – a failure to imagine ourselves as unethical monsters. This is where speculative fiction, such as Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling (2005), came into her keynote. Speculative fiction such as this does more than cataloguing the wrongs done to ethnic, racial, and sexual others: it allows us to challenge our habituated patterns of thinking in terms of race, gender, sex, and health. In other words, it has the power to make us reimagine ourselves.

Another paper I attended was Dr Noelle Gallagher’s ‘Cancer and the Emotions in the Long Eighteenth Century and Beyond’. This innovative paper drew parallels between contemporary and historical perceptions of cancer and their ties to particular emotions. Gallagher began the paper by examining the contemporary ‘cheerful’ nature of breast cancer rhetoric that often coalesces around a (pink) positive outlook. She then began to unpick the rhetoric surrounding cancer in the eighteenth century, arguing that medical practitioners identified emotions such as grief, anger, brooding, mourning, and jealousy as possibly contributing to cancer. Women were seen as more prone to cancer and states of emotional intensity, meaning that the rhetoric was highly gendered. Stoicism and resistance were therefore seen as essential in defying the spread of cancer, which bears relation to how cancer – particularly breast cancer – is talked about in the twenty-first century.

The conference also had a selection of ‘Provocations’ that I thoroughly enjoyed. Dr Fiona Johnstone began by presenting her ‘Manifesto for a Visual Medical Humanities’. Within this, she stressed that we should not treat the visual as a mere tool of representation. In other words, it should not be used as a complementary addition; rather, new and insightful interpretations can be gleaned from artistic and visual works when we acknowledge that they are valid modes of knowledge production in themselves. Having attended the ‘Curating the Medical Humanities’ workshop organised by Johnstone the week before, I could see exactly what she meant. The workshop was highly visual and highlighted the importance of approaching visual works with a robust methodology – just as we do with other sources.

Dr Sara Wasson followed Johnstone in the ‘Provocations’ with ‘Flash Future? The Potential of Fragments and Short-Form Writing in the Project Translating Chronic Pain’. As someone who experiences chronic pain, I found this particular provocation highly moving. Wasson detailed how the AHRC project Translating Chronic Pain, based at Lancaster University, encourages those who experience chronic pain to use ‘flash’ writing (5-150 words) to convey their experiences. It is a powerful platform that conveys how chronic pain can affect the lives of those who experience it – making this pain (something that is often invisible) visible. In turn, it welcomes the awkward and the difficult, which also aims to resist positivity imperatives that can be highly frustrating to those who endure chronic pain.

On the second day of the conference, I found the panel ‘Visual Culture: Photography’ fascinating and incredibly helpful from a methodological perspective. Like Johnstone, Dr Jason Bate and Dr Katherine Rawling both argued that photographs are not merely representations of something else. Rawling stressed that photographs can give a more complete and complex understanding of historical narratives, such as asylum patients in the nineteenth century. Rawling showed how conventions of photographic portraiture can be found in asylum photographs taken by medical doctors, which challenges the idea of repressed or passive patients. She also demonstrated how photographs are fluid, unstable things that need to be carefully considered – for instance, she asked whether the presence of staff and their hands in photographs were restraining or supportive. By the 1890s it was not necessary to hold someone still for lengthy exposure times, so this element was highly ambiguous.

In the panel ‘Materials, Spaces, and Graphics’, I spoke alongside Alexandra Alberda. Her brilliant paper, ‘Transdisciplinary Work in the Comics Museum’, discussed how public health language and medical iconography is usually wordy, unwieldly, and unrelatable; she contrasted this to the comics medium, which is approachable, accessible, and relatable. In the comics medium, emotive narratives sit alongside visual narratives, which makes the subject or reader feel less ‘chopped up’ – we feel human again. There were distinct parallels with my paper, ‘The Forbidden Cupboard: The Evolution of Medicine Chests, Cupboards, and Cabinets in Modern Britain’, particularly as I used advertisements in my paper. Advertisements are often a mixture of textual and visual narratives; using these narratives, I charted how medicine containers came to be central to the modern British home. I also demonstrated how different authorities, such as mothers, commercial companies, and the medical profession, were simultaneously entangled within these spaces.

The conference also provided networking opportunities for PGRs and ECRs. As the conference embraced such a range of disciplines, I had the pleasure of meeting amazing new colleagues and making new connections. I also had the opportunity to meet up with two new members of the North West Medical Humanities PG Network, Andreea Ros and Frank Thorpe. We are planning another network event for spring 2019 – keep your eyes peeled for a CfP!

Thank you to organisers, Clare Barker, Stuart Murray, James Stark, and Amelia DeFalco for arranging such a thought-provoking and inspiring conference.

Erin Bramwell

1+3 ESRC PhD candidate, Lancaster University

Co-founder of North West Medical Humanities PG Network

Getting Involved in the North West Medical Humanities Post Graduate Network

We’re looking for a Northern-based PhD researcher to join the organising committee for the North West Medical Humanities Post Graduate Network. The organising committee is responsible for putting together network events, and managing the blog and social media. This voluntary role requires no more than an hour’s work each week, although around events and workshops there is always more to do.

This network was founded by myself and Erin, over a coffee-fueled conversation about the need for more contact between Medical Humanities PGs and ECRs in Northern institutions (see our blog post on establishing the network). The network, its events, and the blog are very much our babies and we want our new colleague to have an equal degree of ownership over the project.


Natalie and Erin
Colour-coordinated outfits are not obligatory (but encouraged). 


We’re looking for someone who will bring ideas for events, blog posts, and thoughts on how to help the project grow and develop. Candidates will preferably be working in the field of Medical Humanities. Some experience of bidding for funding and organising events would be desirable, but by no means essential.

To apply please send a short bio of no more than 150 words and a short summary of a potential Network event that you would be interested in working on to before 1 Aug 2018.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Erin Bramwell and Natalie Mullen.

Material Cultures of Psychiatry, 2-4 May 2018

International Conference at the Department of History and Ethics of Medicine at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendof in cooperation with the University Luxembourg and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Ottersberg.

Organised by Monika Ankele, UKE Hamburg, and Benoît Majerus, University Luxembourg.

 A couple of weeks ago, I hopped on a plane on a grim and grizzly Manchester morning and headed for a rather more sunny and pleasant Hamburg. I was bound for the Department of History and Ethics of Medicine at the University Clinic Hamburg-Eppendof for the Material Cultures of Psychiatry conference organised by Monika Ankele and Benoît Majerus. You can review the full programme here. This conference brought together researchers from a range of disciplinary backgrounds who seek to understand the history and practice of psychiatric medicine through its material culture(s). This event was (obviously) firmly anchored in psychiatric medicine, however I think followers of the blog with an interest in material culture, interdisciplinarity, patient experience, and medical heritage will be interested in this event. As such I wanted to write a little about some of the parts of the conference that really stood out for me. I’ve tried to write a fairly brief summary of the conference, so have limited myself by focussing on the key themes that I have been reflecting on since returning to my research after the event. However, if you are interested in a more detailed summary of papers and performances go to my Twitter to view live tweeting of the entire three days.

The two aspects of the event that have really made me reflect on the relationship between psychiatry and materiality since were the venue itself, and the performance art/artistic research pieces that featured over the three days. The conference took place in the Department of History and Ethics of Medicine which also houses a dissection hall dating from 1926, and a Medical History Museum. Over the two days the dissection hall hosted art exhibitions, including a display of sculpture on the first evening, and an interpretive dance performance on the second day. Being surrounded by historic medical objects over the course of the event kept the importance of the material aspects of medicine at the forefront of discussions and of thoughts. Not only was the venue itself brimming with the material elements of medical history, but there was space devoted to artistic research into psychiatric medicine throughout the two days. One of my favourite pieces was a sculpture of a head that was made out of bread. This highlighted how appropriations of materials in psychiatric facilities can often be an important outlet for patients who would otherwise be limited in their ability to express themselves through art. This theme of material appropriations was mirrored in several of the papers which highlighted how patients manipulated the material cultures of psychiatry with which they were presented in institutional spaces in order to express themselves and exercise agency.

The dissection hall itself reminded me of the centrality of space to the experience of medicine. The hall was large and well-lit by bright natural light that filtered through the windows that encircled the room along the upper-most part of the walls. It was designed in this way to allow dissections to take place without the distortions thought to be created by electric lighting. Additional light was provided by large ceiling lights that were suspended like pendulums from the roof, illuminating the ten stone dissection tables dispersed throughout the room. The walls are white-washed and the marble floor is made of marble, creating a clean, clinical aesthetic. The lack of soft materials and the presence of marble and stone in walls, ceiling, and floor created echoes, projecting sound loudly throughout the space. This was highlighted in the performance ‘Thin Sheets’, by Kirstin Burckhardt with Lara Bogataj, Daniela Böttcher, Dinah Büchner, Marie Golüke, Sophia Guttenhöfer, Raha Emami Khansari, and Nicola Riede, during which the performers began their piece by making sounds, almost like chanting or singing, filling the room with soundwaves that seemingly took on a life of their own once released between the hard surfaces of the room. Spending time in this space led me to reflect on the relationship between the material cultures of psychiatric spaces and sensory experiences of them. The soundscapes of medical spaces were undoubtedly just as important to the experiences of patients and practitioners as the material dimensions of medicine, psychiatric or otherwise.

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Dissection Hall, UKE Hamburg.  Photo Credit, Linnea Kuglitsch

‘Thin Sheets’ also provoked the audience to consider the relationship between medical objects and embodied experiences of medicine. The group were not allowed to use the dissection tables in their performance for conservation reasons, leading to discussion about the tension in the keeping of medical collections: there is a need to preserve, but also a desire to understand embodied experiences of medicine by using and interacting with objects as originally intended.

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‘Thin Sheets’

Throughout the conference, we were prompted by artistic interventions to consider the embodied nature of experiences of the material cultures of psychiatry. The first evening features a performance by Kirsi Heimonen and Sari Kuuva entitled, ‘Corridor that moves. Bringing forth the materiality of objects of mental hospital. Approaches to artistic research and study of visual culture’. In this piece Sari read quotes from a patient which described his experience of space in a psychiatric facility. Alongside these readings, photographs of the spaces discussed were displayed on the projection screen and Kirsi performed using dance and speeches to explore the physicality of the spaces described. Through this performance, Kirsi highlighted the effects of these spaces on the body of the patient, and explored how psychiatric spaces could provide light and access to the outdoors, but they could also be  constraining.

Michelle Williams Gamaker, Violeta Paez Armando, Hazal Kaygusuz gave a performance/lecture entitled ‘Psychogeographic Explorations of the body: The effectiveness of symbols’ in which they explored the significance of symbolism in shaping the relationship between doctors and patients. Beginning with a discussion of Foucault’s analysis of the importance of theatre in the creation of the doctor-patient relationship, the centrality of the material world in creating this theatre was highlighted. The performance began by recounting Foucault’s analysis of an incident in which a mental patient believed himself to be dead, and because he was a ghost, refused to eat. Doctors convinced him to eat by dressing up as ghosts and consuming food as he watched to persuade him that even the dead had to eat. This analysis of the importance of theatre in bringing about a cure was highlighted by the performers’ dress which was entirely white, and their white-painted, ghostly faces. As the tale of this patient was recounted the performers consumed apples, drawing our attention to the theatrical element of the cure described by Foucault. After this, the audience were tied to Michelle with pieces of string, reminding us of the tie and connection of the doctor-patient relationship. I was struck by the degree to which this apparently simple action brought me into a relationship; that by seeing the physical tie provided by the piece of red string a connection was created. This underlined the degree to which symbolism can be integral in creating relationships between a medical practitioner and their patient. Once again, seeing the effects of material cultures through performances which not only discussed and examined objects, but actually utilised their physical elements, demonstrated in a way which words cannot articulate the centrality of material cultures to medical experiences.


‘Psychogeographic Explorations of the Body’

The effects of patients’ embodied experiences of the material cultures of psychiatry were highlighted in a number of papers. Karin Eli discussed the significance of objects and embodiment in experiences of anorexia nervosa, highlighting the physical aspect of a mental illness which is often framed in terms of emptiness and rejection of the physical. Anatole Le Bras discussed the use of the shed as a confinement device used by families in rural France during the nineteenth century to manage insane relatives in the home. He noted the effects of the physical structures of these sheds on the bodies of patients who were depicted as hunched and disfigured by doctors when they were admitted to asylums. Linnea Kuglitsch examined archaeological finds from Eastern State Lunatic Asylum, Virginia, and the Western Lunatic Hospital, Washington, to demonstrate how patients smuggled illicit natural objects into the asylum from outdoor spaces to bring elements of nature inside. Maia Isabelle Woolner demonstrated that in twentieth-century francophone psychiatry, even time was materialized to construct therapeutic spaces, activities and diagnoses. Louise Hide’s excellent paper on the introduction of television sets on psychiatric wards in English mental hospitals revealed how TV changes ward spaces, staff/patient relationships, and daily routines in the institution.

After returning to my work after these fascinating few days, I’ve really been thinking about the inseparability of psychiatric objects from patients’ or doctors’ uses of them. It was surely the physical experience of objects and psychiatric spaces which elicited responses from patients rather than simply the mere presence of such objects. As an historian, this basic observation too often slips my mind. The performances, displays, and papers given at this conference have prompted me to go back to the museum collection I work with and reacquaint myself with the textures, weight, smells, of the objects which I write about in my thesis, and to think carefully about the ways in which the material world of the asylum would have been experienced by the patients who occupied its rooms and interacted with its objects.

Natalie Mullen is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on patient agency and medical authority in the nineteenth-century asylum. She is also a co-founder of the North West Medical Humanities PG Network.