Health Humanities - Home
What are the Health Humanities?
A common definition of "Health Humanities" goes something along the lines of: an interdisciplinary field that draws on aspects of the arts and humanities in approaching healthcare, health and the general well-being of both patients and caregivers. Essentially, the core of the discipline is the the application of the creative or fine arts and humanities studies combined with questions of human health and well-being. Art is all around us, at any given time we are benefitting from an artist or artisan's hard work be it in the tools we use or the shows we watch. Just as important as the advances in medical care are to a person's physical care, the arts contribute incredibly to their mental and emotional health.
The HHC is an excellent starting point when learning just what the scope of this discipline is and has to offer.
"The Health Humanities Consortium promotes health humanities scholarship, education, and practices through interdisciplinary methods and theories that focus on the intersection of the arts and humanities, health, illness, and healthcare.
Our goals are to:
- Promote understanding of the experiences of patients, caregivers, and communities as they are shaped in relation to models of disease, illness, health, and wellness.
- Share practices and scholarship through an annual meeting.
- Educate the public, healthcare professionals, and educators about the history, practice, and study of health humanities."
Artwork of the Month Topic of the Month
"Medicine Shield, Crow Woman" "Visit to the Quack Doctor" or "The Inspection"
Artist: Joseph Henry Sharp Artist: William Hogarth
Medium: Oil on Linen Oil paint on canvas
(Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum) (Source: National Gallery, London)
- Mythology & Religion
- Historical Figures
- Medical Tools
- General Topics
Apollo - June 2021Master of the sun, music and the arts, protector of cities as well as agriculture, prophecy and truth, healing and plagues, one can see why his worship spread the breadth of the ancient Mediterearan and western Europe.
Gula & Nergal - September 2021Some of the oldest civilizations in the world began in the fertile lands around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Akkad, Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria are counted as some of the most influential city-states and empires of the ancient Near East. Like all contemporary civilizations, the worship of multiple gods was a fact of life - including many deities presiding over the realm of healing.
Hygeia - March 2021Hygiea, Iaso, Aceso & Panacea are four of the Asclepiadae, sons and daughters of Asclepius & Epione - the Greek god of medicine and goddess of recovery. Health in ancient Greece was perceived as a two-fold endeavour: one had to live sensibly, keeping the body fit with exercise and by keeping the mind sharp with educational matters.
Patecatl & Mayahuel - February 2022As in all cultures, the experiences of birth, life and death all interceded with the necessity to acknowledge and please the deities associated with health. For the Aztec pantheon there are gods and goddesses who preside over the practices of medicine, the diseases which are inflicted upon mortals, and over the plants from which remedies are made. Two of these deities are Patecatl and Mayahuel.
- Babalu Aye - December 2022
How we express ourselves, from the personal aesthetics in our home to the design of our holy places can all be designated as kinds of art. Yet when we delve into the realms of religious studies, be they visual, written word or music, we find the common amalgamation in the humanities known as syncretism. This practice is as old as humanity itself and can be simply defined as the blending of two or more components of various cultures to form a new entity/object/practice. One example of such blending between beliefs and cultures stems from the practices of the Yoruba people and the extended worship of their deities in the Caribbean and North as well as South America. Babalú-Aye can be noted as one of the syncretized deities.
“Babalú-Aye (from yoruba Obalúayé), Oluaye, Ṣọpọna, or even Obaluaiye, is one of the orishas or manifestations of the supreme creator god Olodumare in the Yoruba religion of West Africa. Babalú-Aye is the spirit of the Earth and strongly associated with infectious disease, and healing. He promotes the cure for illnesses."
Sukunabikona - June 2022Sukunahikona is a god associated with several domains including medical knowledge, protection from wild animals, the brewing of sake and the healing properties of hot springs. His story is closely tied with another god, Ōkuninushi, who found him not long after he fell to earth after being born and together they set forth to build the country destined to become Japan. Various ancient works of literature describe this divine friendship and expand upon the duties of Sukunahikona as a god of medical knowledge on top of crafting a country.
Avicenna - February 2021Born in 980 C.E. in what is now Uzbekistan, Ibn Sīnā (known to the Western canon as Avicenna) was the most influential physician and philosopher of the Islamic Middle Ages. A major contributor to the fields of Aristotelian philosophy as well as medicine, his writings reached an audience far and wide even centuries after his death in 1037 C.E.
Frida Kahlo - December 2021At 18 years old, Kahlo was involved in a terrible streetcar accident which left her with a shattered pelvis, damaged spine, and confined to a full-body cast which remained in place for months. For the remainder of her life the impact of this traumatic injury would leave her bedridden, constantly in both mental and physical pain, and became a common thread in her paintings.
Galen - May 2021Born c.a. 129 CE in Pergamum, Mysia, Anatolia [now Turkey and —died ca. 21 CE, Galen was, Greek physician, writer, and philosopher. His influence on medical theory and practice in Europe last from the Middle Ages until the mid-17th century.
Imhotep - August 2020Born in the city of Memphis during the 27th century BCE and serving under the 3rd dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (reigned 2630-2611), Imhotep is credited as a priest, mathematician, astronomer and poet. As an architect, his most notable project would be the final resting place of the Pharaoh he served - the famous Step Pyramid at Saqqara.
- Kamdambini Ganguly - August 2022
The 19th century was a tumultuous time for many nations, as the British Empire was ever-increasing and revolutions spread beyond many borders. Old regimes clashed with new ideals, and this was true in southeast Asia just as it was in Europe. In a poster presentation published by the Journal of Urology, the backlash against a female physician in 1880s India is summarized. Kadambini attended college with another woman, Sarla, becoming the first to attempt the entrance exam at Calcutta University. In 1883 she entered the medical college despite strong criticism from the administration.
- Metrodora - January 2023 “Metrodora, a pioneer in women’s health is often referred to as the “Mother of Gynecology.” She was a Greek physician of Egyptian origin born sometime between 200 A.D. and 400 A.D. Her medical text, The Diseases and Cures of Woman, is believed to be the oldest surviving medical work written by a woman. It outlines gynecological methods still used today."
Roman Surgery - September 2020Surgical tools were often made of either one, or a combination of, three metals: bronze, iron and steel. Some of these tools were nearly as advanced in design as instruments used today, being rediscovered over a millenia later. The designs of these tools are both elegant and practical, and take care with the material chosen for a particular operation.
18th Century Surgical Tools - October 2021No one can doubt that surgery in our not so distant past was a terrifying ordeal, many times for both patient and physician. Prior to the discovery of anesthetics the process of 18th century surgical intervention was a gruesome endeavour, with instruments that still manage to frighten people to this day.
“Across Europe numbers of medical students were swelling. In France the numbers of surgeons nearly tripled between 1700 and 1789..,As well as the increasing numbers, medical education was changing, especially in the matter of dissection. Before the 1750s, anatomisation was generally a theatrical event where the dissection was carried out by a surgeon, watched over by a crowd of enthralled and doubtless, sometimes, nauseated crowd.”
Roman Prayers for Healing - September 2022A cosmopolitan culture, the Romans did as so many older empires had done, assimilate and copy the achievements and beliefs of their predecessors. From what we know of the medicinal and religious practices of the ancient world, the two were often entwined and to this day their symbols and languages remain strong in our own healthcare landscape. Look no further than the Hippocratic oath or the caduceus on ambulances. However, there were a plethora of objects and ephemera related to the care of the sick in ancient Rome. One practice dates back further than Romulus and Remus but was practiced by the people who claimed descent from the mythical twins, and that is the offering for healing. Essentially, a physical object is left in a place of worship in hopes that the deity will heal someone in exchange. We are very lucky that so many examples of this practice have been preserved over the millennia. Found across the Roman Empire, these objects could be specialty-made bits of sculpture, fragments of pottery with prayers written on them, or pieces of precious metals with inscriptions etched into the surface.
Anatomical Figures - July 2021By the Renaissance, with a shift in visual arts from stylization to realism, adherence to perspective and subjects expanding beyond church decoration, the role of artist soon became entwined with the anatomist. Just as art schools teach today, to render a human figure effectively the artist needs to master anatomical study.d Not all anatomical figures were purely for the classroom. During the late 18th century, La Specola in Florence opened one of the earliest natural history and anatomical museums in the world. Some of the most striking exhibits were the wax figures known as Anatomical Venuses.slightly under the umbrella of education.
Astrology Gardens - December 2020Physicians and monks of this era would have been familiar with the astrological correlations between the body and zodiac. Each part of the body was “ruled” by a sign, and therefore possessed elemental tendencies accordingly; for example the shoulders to Gemini, the breast to Cancer, etc. From there, the sun sign of a person would then be attributed to their constitution, such as those born under Libra or Aquarius being melancholic.
- The Sculptures of Michelangelo - March 2022
“Born in Caprese in 1475, he considered himself a Florentine, though he lived most of his life in Rome, where he died aged eighty-eight. When thirteen years old he trained first as a painter with Domenico Ghirlandaio, then with the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovannunder. Domenico commended him to Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence."
Like his contemporaries, Michelangelo learned the human form by means of dissection. While most artists did not conduct the autopsies of cadavers themselves, they did attend public dissections, sketching and taking notes on anatomy. Only the bodies of condemned criminals were permitted for such education, as the Church considered autopsy to be desecration. However, this special exception had clear results, as seen in the sculptures of Michelangelo.
The Venus of Willendorf & The Healthy Female FormThe Paleolithic era lasted from 3 million years ago to around 11,000 years ago, years between it and the following eras change depending on civilization and location. While we are still learning about our distant ancestors from that time, what little evidence has survived both sheds light and puzzles us. Take, for example, one of the most famous works of art in the world, the Venus of Willendorf - or - the Woman of Willendorf depending on the resource mentioning it. One of a wide variety of female figures crafted during the Paleolithic, discovered at the start of the 20th century, this object has no clear meaning yet provides a window into the perceptions of beauty, health and possibly religion.
The Anatomy Lesson - August 2021The 17th century is known as the Dutch Golden Age, an era when the expanse of the Dutch trading empire spanned the globe. Art flourished in this time, in multiple media, and in a variety of subject matters. For painting, such expertise loaned itself in still life, genre (depictions of everyday life) and portraiture. Names such as Johannes Vermeer, Rahcel Ruysch, Judith Leyster and Frans Hals became synonymous with great northern European art. However, of all the Dutch master painters, Rembrandt is arguably the most well known.
With a prolific portfolio of works including mythological themes, Biblical scenes, self portraits that range from his twenties until just before his death, he is considered one of the greatest European artists in history.
Henry VIII and The Barber Surgeons - April 2022Although surgical intervention was prohibited in early versions of the Hippocratic Oath, the need for such care was constant. However, the increase in demand for the barber-surgeon’s skills went up during a particularly dark time in European history, the aftermath of which paved the way for the professionalization of the job. This instance was the Black Plague, and barber-surgeons would go from town to town offering services as needed. (Thamer) By 1540, the formal education system and needs of healthcare regulation had become a necessary reform topic in England. As such, King Henry VIII brought about the Act of Union between the Company of Barbers and the Guild/Fellowship of Surgeons.
The Raft of the Medusa - November 2022Not all figures in art were derived from live models, and not all statements made by an artistic work are summed up in a single lesson. Oftentimes art will force us to confront the tragic and contemplative nature of human action and reaction. In 1816 the public of France was shocked by the news of a terrible shipwreck. Two years later, a larger than life painting was unveiled depicting the tragedy and the conversations about survival, classist prejudice and treatment of survivors began. The Raft of the Medusa hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris, France and is considered one of the most famous works of art of the Romantic era, painted by Théodore Géricault. It depicts the few survivors of a shipwreck off the African west coast in the moment of their rescue.
- Tibetan Medicine & the Visual Arts - May 2022
Across human history, the visual arts have proven to be a momentous contribution to the record of medicinal progress. While the accuracy of anatomical studies have often been either very close or outright wrong, the history of medical study, and the philosophies which drove its progress, have been cataloged in a variety of visual media. As stated in the catalog of an exhibition of Tibetan medicinal art, editor Theresia Hofer explains that in Tibet, the Buddhist faith preaches a practice known as Sowa Rigpa, translated as the “science of healing” or the “art of healing.” Within this religious community, there are ten arts and sciences, divided into five major and minor fields of study including the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings (the inner science), epistemology and logic, grammar medicine (i.e. Sowa Rigpa), and the arts and crafts.
- Visit to the Quack Doctor - March 2023
Satire and political cartoons saw their birth during the 17th and 18th centuries, gaining massive popularity in Great Britain. Such was the environment that artist William Hogarth (1697 - 1764) produced his artworks. Painting with the subject known as genre, Hogarth concentrated on the everyday occurrences and people which populated the world around him. But it is his works within satire that he is best known for. Blending the observations of the culture he inhabited with a blistering social commentary, Hogarth became a narrator on morality and corruption within British society. Of all his works it is the six part series of paintings, later mass produced via engravings for printing, Marriage a la Mode, that he is renowned. Here we see the third painting, “Scene 3: The Inspection: The third scene takes place in the room of a French doctor (M. de la1743 (engraving 1745) Pillule). The Viscount is seated with his child mistress beside him, he has apparently given her the venereal disease syphilis, as indicated by the black spot on his neck.” (The National Gallery, London)
American Indian Medicine - April 2021An extremely simplified definition of this could be called a forebear to holistic practices today, where the mind and spirit, as well as body, undergo treatment. Such treatment is still well and alive today, practiced by a multitude of groups across the continents. An interesting fact to be mindful of is the existence of a difference between what is considered medicine and what is considered healing within this spectrum of care.
Diagnosing from Beyond the Grave - October 2022This Halloween season, let us look at the growing phenomenon of diagnosing both art subjects and artists from the past with the tools of the present. While these long deceased people cannot contribute to the conversation now, the evidence left behind in their likenesses can give names to their conditions which might not have been available in their lifetime. Known as ‘diagnosing the canvas’ this past-time has seen increasing notoriety among medical and artistic circles alike. “Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London, reports in the journal Clinical Rheumatology the identification of a rare skin disease on one of the figures depicted in 18th century English painter Joseph Wright of Derby’s 1768 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump'…Notably, the man standing to the right of the scientist has a nasty, bumpy rash on his face and hands. ‘“When we look at the painting with much higher detail, it is clear the father character has a skin rash that is consistent with the disease of dermatomyositis.”...
Food Cultivation - November 2020An excellent way to gauge the progress of human impact on produce is the presence of roses in the same works of art. Knowing how many civilizations have cultivated roses over millennia, we can set up a timeline of how much or little a rose has been altered by human hands in comparison to the vegetables accompanying the flowers in like pieces.
Indigenous Physicians, People & Photography - November 2021And this new technology proved to be an effective tool in spreading inaccurate information about both the cultures and health of the people who called the North American continent home for centuries before European settlers arrived. “Equally indifferent to Native Americans’ human condition, ethnographers, for whom photography went hand-in-hand with fieldwork, used their cameras to document racial types and illustrate disproven and disgraced concepts concerning the relationship between race and mental ability. Or they were used to help create “accurate” museum dioramas showing mankind’s presumed life stages and relationship to the natural environment. Well into the 20th century, government employees and missionaries alike used photography of American Indians to document the success of the country’s assimilation policy.”
Visual Arts & Nursing in Japan - January 2022Certain images maintain a place in our collective memories, despite how time and societal advancements might change the reality of said image. In the case of the nurse, we all recognize the white uniform as part of a profession that has changed greatly since its 19th century inception. The visual codification of nurses was part and parcel to its growth as a viable job option for women in an era when working outside of the home was almost impossible. How we perceived the nurse, as a legitimately trained individual in a crisp white uniform, was not isolated to Europe and the United States.
Witches & Healers - October 2020Midwifery was the profession of poor married, older or widowed women which provided an income not available to other women at the time. As such, while they were necessary - even holding special permission to baptise a baby should death be near after birth - their lower social standing remained firm. In fact, some early French laws regarding the practice of midwifery were specifically intended to weed out midwives who might be secretly practicing witchcraft.
Ospedale degli Innocenti - July 2022
The Spedale is one of the first great architectural creations of the Renaissance. It represented a completely new concept in hospital design. Based on the architecture of a palazzo, with a grand façade, loggia and graceful courtyards more in the style of an aristocratic residence rather than a public institution for the care of abandoned infants and children.” (Unicef)