The Medical Humanities at WISER

Welcome to the website for WISER's research and work around the medical humanities.

Wits is currently offering two new postgraduate medical humanities courses, spearheaded by Medical Humanities at WiSER with colleagues from across the university.

Our Medical Humanities work at WiSER focusses on the following themes:

Medical Evidence

Sex and Sexuality

Organ Transplantation and Tissue Transfusion

Chronic Disease and Aging


Transgender and Intersexuality


Medical Humanities News

Check out our list of interesting blogs and articles, and a short report on our recent work.

What is Medical Humanities?

Medical humanities developed as a multi-disciplinary field in the United States in the early 1970s, fostered partly by the liberal arts education the country requires of all undergraduates, but also the burgeoning of public health as a related postgraduate professional qualification which drew in individuals who had not initially trained in medicine or nursing. Simultaneously, museums and archival spaces in Britain, for example the Wellcome Institute, became interested in the development of the social history of medicine, of medical sociology, and of medical ethics. In both the US and Britain the first wave of medical humanities approaches were rooted in complementary work –  in adding richness to medical science and knowledge through contrasting and comparing approaches from the humanities to themes of health, suffering, therapy, pain, and illness. The emphasis was on richness derived from differing perspectives.

A much more ambitious and recent aim, emerging from critical philosophy, history, literary and artistic work, as well as ethnographic analysis and political sociology, has been to challenge and refocus medical, especially biomedical, knowledge and education. Here humanistic knowledge is seen in relation to medical, especially biomedical, knowledge about what it is to be fully human. The latter approach seeks to place medical humanities within medicine and aims at a more than polite sharing of space, often subject to the invitation of established medical academics and professionals.

The field thus gains coherence not from a variety of self-enclosed sub categories, for example “art and surgery,” or “narrative form and medical diagnosis,” but rather from a common urge to understand what it is to be “fully human” within a shared mode of enquiry.

The Medical Humanities at WiSER

In 2012 Catherine Burns and colleagues at Wits started working to establish a medical humanities research interest group and centre of excellence based at WiSER. Interest in the field has resulted in an extensive group of academics and professionals from the health sciences - medicine, nursing, public health and allied schools and departments - as well as from the social sciences and humanities, the Law School, and the Wits School of Arts joining our reading groups and participating in our events. 

Our project received a substantial fund from the Mellon Foundation in April 2014 and we are also delighted to have received smaller grants for specific projects from the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes and the National Research Foundation to draw on.

Many scholars in the US and Britain work on medical humanities in African or southern contexts, in imperial, postcolonial and other global frames, however WiSER is the first African research.

We have organised two major conferences so far:

Body Knowledge: Medicine and the Humanities in Conversation

In September 2013 we convened Body Knowledge: Medicine and Humanities in Conversation. This was the first conference on the medical humanities to be held in southern Africa, and brought together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines, and from all over the world. Professor Julie Livingston presented the keynote address: "Figuring the Tumour: Photography, self, and cancer." She has since gone on to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.

For more on the conference, see here.

Age and the Body: Cultures and Conversations

This year, on 27 and 28 June we held Age and the Body: Cultures and Conversations a symposium which looked at a variety of our medical humanities themes, including organ transplantation and ageing in South Africa. Professor Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, presented the keynote, “New Pathologies and Old Susceptibilities: Ageing and Chronic Disease in India and South Africa (1940-50s).” The Symposium itself hosted the presentation of 19 papers and concluded with a workshop about research and publication plans for the next year.