Take Humanities for Your Health




Entwined bodies breathing heat into cool marble. Poetry wrapping grief in soft truth. Literature that grapples with suffering of every kind. The humanities have always stolen their abstractions from the physical self.

It is time for them to give back.

Dr. Rebecca Messbarger, a professor of Italian, and Dr. Patricia Olynyk, who holds a distinguished professorship in design and visual arts, cofounded a medical humanities program at Washington University some years ago. Earlier this month, to celebrate the university’s new school of public health—its first new school in a century—they decided to illustrate the connection. Two physicians, a medical historian, a social scientist, and two video artists were invited to discuss “the sexual and reproductive body,” which has been, Messbarger explains, “throughout history to our own dangerous, fractious moment, a contested site.”

She begins with a visual: the body of a pregnant woman, sculpted in wax in 1780 in Florence, Italy. It can be dissected layer by layer, the uterus removed and held in one hand, the fetus visible within. Visitors flocked to the Royal Museum of Science and Natural History, many of them women seeing the inner workings of their bodies for the first time. Public health, conveyed by art and documented by history.

One of the panelists is nodding. At Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Mary Fissell teaches the history of medicine, the jolts of comprehension that come from learning how attitudes toward sex or disease or mental illness have evolved. Here, she starts “where the humanities live,” with a story.

A young, enslaved woman in ancient Greece sings to men at parties. She knows that a pregnancy would erase her value, so she pays sharp attention when she hears that if a woman is going to conceive, semen does not run out of her body. When that happens, a doctor instructs her to jump up and down vigorously. There is a small noise, and a tiny bit of something falls from her body to the floor. The physician, interested in fetal development, scoops it up. But how does she feel?

We will never know; early history was mainly written by men. But the story reminds us that “a woman’s regulation of her fertility was the norm in ancient Greece,” Fissell says. “There were no lawsuits, no protests, no crossing state lines.” A more grievous history explains why Black and Brown women receive lower quality maternity care in the contemporary U.S. And social history tells us why “the possibility that a woman might feel relief, grief, and confusion about an abortion is hard to discuss,” even now.

Listening, I realized how airtight my mental compartments have been. Setting aside Sartre’s nausea and Sontag’s meditations on cancer, medicine has seemed only a topic for writers and artists, a source of metaphor or a plot point. I forgot how words, sounds, and images can reveal, and heal, the body.

How, though, to use them in public health? Dr. Juliet Iwelunmor, professor of medicine and associate director for global health and dissemination, organizes contests in Nigeria, gathering illustrations and slogans from talented teenagers to urge HPV vaccination and cervical cancer screening. Iwelunmor grew up there, creativity seeping into her daily life through music, food, clothing, and craft. She knows patients are far easier to understand and treat when you fall in love with their stories, their art, their uniqueness—all easily lost in a world of diagnostic codes and labels. “Can the arts, poetry, stories, and communities be the next frontier in public health?” she asks, sure of the answer. “We have done an excellent job with ‘health,’ but we have not yet done a good job with ‘public.’”

Dr. Hilary Reno, professor of medicine and medical director of the St. Louis County Sexual Health Clinic, flashes older posters on the screen. These were not gathered from eager, interested teenagers. They were commissioned by oldschool public health authorities who used shame and stigma to drive their message home. A 1918 poster lists horrors “fought in the open”—bubonic plague, yellow fever—then says it is time to fight (the shameful secret of) venereal disease. Wartime posters stir fear in male soldiers, showing images of women who are bad, dirty, dangerous, loaded with disease, nothing but trouble. When the AIDS epidemic breaks, a U.S. flag replaces the field of stars with skulls dripping blood.

And then there is a shift, and humor sweeps away the shame. Syphilis posters from the nineties show people in brightly colored penis costumes or penises drawn as caricatures of famous people who suffered the infection. Reno even adds a few recent groaners from Missouri, one showing a curved pickle and promising that protecting yourself is “no big dill.” Posters on public transit here in St. Louis are a special challenge, she explains, because until recently, any mention of STIs or sex was automatically vetoed. “That may be why we are looking at a pickle,” she adds dryly, “although I have a feeling they would nix that, too.”

Dr. Marlon Bailey, who calls himself “a humanist social scientist,” has done ethnographic studies of “those whose practices are constructed as vectors of disease,” and whose knowledge and experience are often dismissed by the medical establishment. Often he approaches through dance, poetry, or some other creative practice. In his latest book, Black Gay Sex, he uses poetry to think about “HIV as a constant haunting that interrupts the possibility of pleasure.” Clearing his throat, he reads a poem by Essex Hemphill, who died of AIDS complications: “Now we think as we fuck, we think as we fuck…. This nut might kill. This kiss could turn to stone.”

All the stats and treatises in the world cannot muster the impact of those words. Or the impact of “This Is Offal,” a short art film (and ghost story) made by guest video artists Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. A beautiful, desolate, destitute young woman, one of the Victorians’ “soiled doves,” throws herself into the Thames. Her body is recovered and brought to a London morgue, where her various organs express their caustic, darkly funny disapproval of her suicide.

As idiosyncratic and creative as the Kelleys’ work is, they focus on “that mysterious loop, the transition from the individual to the collective,” Mary says, where ideas of public health evolve. And where shame lingers. Often they are asked why they set their videos in historic periods. “Part of the project,” Pat explains, “is pointing out that the material of history is part of the present.”

It takes imagination, and a sense of the past, to see that. It takes philosophy to remind us that health is not simply the absence of disease. Even the World Health Organization has acknowledged, says Reno, that health is thriving, living to your full potential. The role of the humanities in public health? We cannot mend our minds and bodies without understanding the stories they tell. Or, as Bailey puts it, “You can’t get to healing if you don’t recognize pain.”

There it is, dancing in a fury. And there, in the corner, speaking in odd rhymes. Outside, locking itself inside symbols. On the sidewalk, whispering to its neighbor. Telling how it feels, and why.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.