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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Major themes in medical humanities

HSTM60541 (30 credits)

Semester One

Classes: four hours per week. Two one-hour lectures: Mondays 9 till 10 or 10 till 11, and one other (taught by a series of guest lecturers from across the University) at times to be determined. One weekly two-hour discussion seminar, Tuesdays 10am till 12 noon.

Contact: Dr Elizabeth Toon

The unit aims to:

  • introduce the key themes and issues relevant to understanding the relationship between medicine and the humanities
  • provide an integrated survey of the theoretical and methodological approaches used by those considering the interfaces of medicine and art, literature, history, ethics, and performance
  • introduce students to the variety of disciplines contributing to medical humanities
  • use case studies to exemplify the interdisciplinary nature of the field
  • stimulate students to consider medical knowledge, practice, and identity through the lenses provided by the humanities


On completion of this unit, successful students will be able to:

  • describe the main fields involved in medical humanities and understand the methodological differences in their approaches to medical issues and themes
  • approach case studies and key issues in medical humanities by drawing on methodological and analytical tools from multiple disciplines
  • identify essay topics, conduct independent research, and write original essays relevant to the themes addressed in the unit


This course provides an introduction to the interdisciplinary field of medical humanities, and to the methods and approaches used by the disciplines that contribute to this field. The course is framed around several themes central to medical humanities inquiry, including: the dynamics of the sick role; the nature of bodily autonomy; the social and cultural meanings of disability; the role of socialization in medical education; cultural representations of disease; and narratives and experiences of illness. Each theme is introduced at the beginning of a teaching week through a historical case-study. An interdisciplinary seminar session follows, providing students with the opportunity to discuss that issue from scholars from collaborating groups, and drawing on historical, literary, ethical, and other analytical perspectives to do so. Finally, a tutorial session led by the course directors closes each week, with students joined by current medical practitioners and others involved in health care (such as patient advocates and health care activists) to reflect on the week’s topic as it manifests in contemporary context.


The course includes four whole-group contact hours per week. These are divided as follows:

a) 1 60-minute session per week of interactive historical lecture/seminar on a set broad topic, led by a staff member from CHSTM and sometimes co-taught with HSTM 60511, Major Themes in HSTM;

b) 1 90-minute seminar per week where teaching staff from other parts of the university* join the course directors in leading students as they consider the broad topic introduced in lecture from other disciplinary perspectives; and

c) 1 90-minute tutorial per week, led by the course directors and often including local medical practitioners, health care activists and others will join the tutorial to talk about that week’s issue in practical terms.

*See collaborating groups under ‘Teaching Staff’ below


3 essays of 2000 words each, of which the highest-scoring 2 count for credit: 40% each

1 journal portfolio of 2500 words: 20%. (Students compose weekly 200-250 word entries in a course journal for each week’s tutorial, which are then periodically reviewed by and discussed with the course leaders; at the end of term, students edit these entries and turn them in collectively as a portfolio.)


Required and recommended reading to be determined, but will be drawn from multiple disciplines, and will include novels, poetry, drama, and art work as well as scholarly work in history of medicine, ethics, literary and cultural analysis, the social sciences, and communication.


Students will receive preparatory guidance on their essays as well as written feedback, given as part of a face-to-face discussion, on the completed, marked essays. Students will also receive, through individual meetings midway through term and at term’s end, feedback on their progress and a chance to express any concerns.


This is a team-taught course directed and coordinated by Dr Elizabeth Toon (CHSTM) and Dr Sarah Collins (MMS), who will supervise all contributions to the course. Other staff from CHSTM will contribute some lectures, and staff from the following allied departments are scheduled to participate in and lead seminar discussions: English and American Studies; Health Care Ethics and Law, Art History and Visual Studies, Classics and Ancient History, the Humanitarianism and Conflict Response Institute,  Drama, and the Centre for New Writing.

View a recent course outline (pdf)