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Seminar 2009

Suburban Shaman: Tales from Medicine’s Frontline
Cecil Helman

This talk deals with the role of narratives in medical practice: whether spoken, acted out, or expressed in the form of symptoms. Telling one’s story to another is a basic human way of organizing experience, and of giving it meaning, especially at times of illness or suffering. Allowing these stories to emerge in medical practice is a very different approach to the rushed ‘techno-narratives’ now common in modern medicine, especially in a hospital setting. Increasingly, medicine’s focus is on the body, and on its ‘story’ as revealed by diagnostic technology – rather than the individual’s own account of suffering. This focus on the patient, rather than on the person, is the difference between curing and healing. The talk is illustrated by readings from the book Suburban Shaman: Tales from Medicine’s Frontline, and from its forthcoming sequel An Amazing Murmur of the Heart.

Cecil Helman was born in Cape Town, South Africa, where he qualified in medicine, and then studied social anthropology at University College London. He is currently Professor of Medical Anthropology at Brunel University, and Senior Lecturer in Primary Care at University College Medical School. He has been a Visiting Fellow at Harvard Medical School, and a Visiting Professor at the University of New South Wales, Sydney; McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada; and the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He has published poetry, essays, short stories, an anthology, and a textbook Culture, Health and Illness – used in over 40 countries since first publication in 1984. His memoir Suburban Shaman was serialized as the BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’ in March 2006, and in 2007 won the Medical Journalists Open Book Award.

The Power of Stories: Lectures and speakers