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Book review
Medicine, Health and the Arts: Approaches to the Medical Humanities
  1. Angela Woods
  1. Correspondence to Dr Angela Woods, Centre for Medical Humanities, Caedmon Building, Durham University, Leazes Road, Durham DH1 1SZ, UK; angela.woods{at}

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Edited by Victoria Bates, Alan Bleakley, Sam Goodman. Published by Routledge, 2013, hardback, 304 pages. ISBN 978-0415644310, £84.99.

One of the defining features of the medical humanities is the field's indefatigable exploration of its identity, purpose and value. At their best, these inquiries take the form of a critical engagement with the thorny problems posed by interdisciplinary and cross-sector work on matters relating to human health and illness. In their least interesting incarnations, rigorous reflexivity is bracketed in favour of reflections on the humanisation of healthcare; too often, treatises on the merits of the medical humanities appear either oddly evangelical or cagey, anxious and defensive in tone.

Victoria Bates and Sam Goodman respond to this predicament by explicitly declining ‘to engage with the complexities surrounding definitions and redefinitions of the medical humanities’ (4). Instead, their introduction to Medicine, Health and the Arts elaborates on the three principles underlying this edited collection: inclusivity, a focus on history and context, and the conviction that ‘the relationship between medicine, arts and humanities should be conceptualised in terms of reciprocity and exchange’ (5). Following further introductory chapters by Alan Bleakley and Tess Jones, the remaining four sections of the volume are organised by art form: visual arts, literature and writing, performance and music. Each begins with a lengthy scene-setting essay followed by two complementary case studies, one tracing the influence of medicine on or within the arts, the other looking at art's role within medicine and medical practice.

Reciprocity is a structural as well as conceptual motif within the collection, which stages a series of conversations between academics, artists, and practitioners. The first set of case studies explain the rise in popularity and significance of the graphic pathography and its role within a larger iconography of illness; highlight the enduring significance of the myth …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.