Medical History and the Arts!

Walt Whitman,  John Keats, and Franz Schubert. Literature, poetry, and classical music.

In the early stages of cataloging the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History/Bulletin canadien d’histoire de la médecine for the University of Toronto it has become abundantly clear that the journal showcased the intersection medicine, health, and the arts. (Here’s the announcement about what I’m actually doing.)

In 2014, the New York Academy of Medicine held its second annual Festival of Medical History and the Arts, which celebrated the 500th birthday of anatomist and humanist Andreas Vesalius. Vesalius’ groundbreaking De humani corporis fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) of 1543 remains one of the key Renaissance texts. It profoundly altered medical training, anatomical knowledge, and artistic representations of the body.

Page 174 of Andreas Vesalius’ De corporis humani fabrica libri septem, available at National Library of Medicine

 

While few figures have been so influential to the arts, learning, and medicine – and while Vesalius’ influence has persisted over the centuries in anatomical training, representations of the body and the visual arts – other important figures in the Arts deserve attention, too.

The CBMH/BCHM was addressing this as early as 1984, when S.E.D. Shortt probed Walt Whitman’s and Richard Bucke’s fiery friendship. In “The Myth of a Canadian Boswell: Dr. R.M. Bucke and Walt Whitman,” Shortt seeks to correct the view of Bucke, one of the most notable figures in Canadian mental health history. And he recasts the Bucke/Whitman relationship as one of “symbiosis rather than of master poet and sycophantic admirer.” (55) It’s a fascinating read and timely, especially since the New York Academy of Medicine just this month held a public forum on Walt Whitman, ‘Manly Health,’ and the Democratization of Medicine.

http://whitmanarchive.org/multimedia/image007.html?sort=year&order=ascending&page=1
Available at the Walt Whitman Archive

 

Thereafter, in 1986 (Vol 1) CBMH/BCHM placed a spotlight on the early medical career of John Keats and Franz Schubert’s terminal illness.

For G. Hetenyi, in the early 1980s “considerable uncertainty” still existed about Schubert’s terminal illness and the cause of his death in 1828. Thus, his article, “The terminal illness of Franz Schubert and the treatment of syphilis in Vienna in the eighteen hundred and twenties,” is part biography, part nosography. (51-52)

It ably locates Schubert within a particular medical culture (Vienna) and provides a unique window into his musical career. Along the way, Hetenyi raises some tantalizing questions: Was Schubert being poisoned? Was he suffering from Typhus?

 

Finally, “Keats as a Student at Guy’s Hospital” offers a wonderful snapshot of medical training within an elite institution, as well as the “varied profession.”  According to Donald Goellnicht, “Keats is famous first as a poet, second as a letter-writer, and hardly at all as a man of medicine.” (65-66)

John Keats – available on Biography.com

The goal, then, is to furnish a fuller portrait of Keats’s background. And the reader is exposed to the volatile nature of the medical field in the early 19th century, the gritty and grotesque world of anatomical and surgical education, and absorbing accounts of leading physicians, including Ashley Cooper who was widely regarded as one of the best medical lecturers in Europe.

*

In essence, the earliest issues of CBMH/BCHM sought to highlight the crossroads of medicine, health, and the arts, which is, of course, very fashionable now.

The University of Toronto has recently started a Health, Arts, & Humanities Program, while the University of Saskatchewan just launched a Health Studies Program. And this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Many more universities and many lecturers/physicians/educators are evaluating the relationship between Medicine and the Arts.

It’s affirming that Canadian Association for the History of Medicine/  Société canadienne d’histoire de la médecine was doing this from the journal’s inception.

By Lucas Richert @DrLucasRichert

 

 

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