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Medical Humanities
  1. Carol Clewlow
  1. Writer in Residence, Department of Epidemiology & Public Health, School of Health Sciences, The Medical School, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne NE2 4HH, UK

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    David Greaves, Martyn Evans, Editors. Published twice yearly in June and December as a special edition of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Personal subscription: £21.00 (US$33.00). London: BMJ Publishing Group.

    The template is Chekhov. Or maybe the patron saint. Call him the lode star, anyway, for those who want to bring medicine and the humanities together.

    Picture the scene. There he is, late one night, any night, deep into The Three Sisters, or Uncle Vanya, or The Seagull and there's a knock at the door which, opened up by the housekeeper, reveals a scruffy urchin who says those magic words “Can the doctor come...?”

    And so Chekhov the writer lays down his pen and drags himself away from the Prozorov's drawing room, or Vanya's office, or Arkadin's dining table, and rises from his desk. And Chekhov the doctor goes out into the night. It's a story to strike shame in the heart of any precious writer, trust me. Chekhov, naturally enough, figures in the first issue of Medical Humanities. A paper on Chekhov's short story A Case History considers, among other things, the polyphonic nature of doctor-patient communications—a perfect example of how naturally fiction and medicine fuse together. Just how inherently dramatic is the business of medicine is something instantly recognisable to the novelist—not in the sense of ER or Casualty in which medicine and all things medical, including its practitioners, provide merely an exciting and glamorous location and justification for the drama—but in the manner, for instance, in which director Peter Brook uses it in his work with Oliver Sacks, or American doctor/writer Frank Huyler in his wonderful Blood of Strangers, a review of which, incidentally, also appears in the journal.

    There's plenty to fascinate the novelist in this new journal—interesting ideas on sickness or health and, of course, Chekhov. As a writer in residence at a medical school I found papers on the relationship between arts and medicine, and its current state of play in medical schools, invaluable.

    What is more interesting, though, is that, to someone on the humanities side, there appears to be something unnecessarily deferential about the approach medicine makes to the arts, like poor old peasant-stock Lopahin, cap-in-hand, before he bought the cherry orchard.

    Imagine this if you can. A bunch of English Literature lecturers, concerned about the teaching of the subject in the country's universities, in particular the sort of narrow visioned students, lecturers, novels, plays, etc it is producing, decide to introduce a Special Study Module in Science and Medicine into the degree. Difficult isn't it?

    Roll on the well rounded doctor. Let's hope and pray, for all our sakes, they don't start requiring the same of writers.