Five Questions for… Carsten Timmermann

We are kicking off our blog series Meet the MedHumLab Members with co-founder Dr Carsten Timmermann, Senior Lecturer in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and passionate cyclist in his spare time. Questions by Marion Endt-Jones.

Carsten is a member of UMBUG, the University of Manchester's Bicycle Users' Group

Carsten is a member of UMBUG, the University of Manchester’s Bicycle Users’ Group

You co-founded MedHumLab with Dr Elizabeth Toon in 2015. Can you tell us a bit more about your reasons for initiating a medical humanities research network in Manchester?

At the roots of this network was our interdisciplinary MSc course in Medical Humanities, developed and launched by Elizabeth and Sarah Collins in 2012. Sarah had been introduced to us by a colleague in the medical school, and we realized quickly that our interests overlapped. Sarah runs the Consultation Skills Learning Centre at the Manchester Medical School. She has found that medical students are often keen on the arts and would like to see more humanities teaching included in their curriculum, so she organizes a series of successful music, literature and arts events with performances by students.

When we put together the MSc course, we discovered that a number of colleagues across campus were interested in matters of health and medicine: in history, literature, the social sciences, or as explored in the visual arts or music. Many of them now contribute to the MSc, which is truly interdisciplinary and quite unusual. This is not always easy in a University designed around traditional faculties and disciplines. These colleagues were the original members of the network, and we’re hoping to reach out to others – possibly with a view to future joint projects. It’s not easy to launch projects across faculty boundaries, and an important goal of the network is to find ways of facilitating this for our field.

The actual trigger, however, was an email from Tim Harrison, the Creative Director of Sick! Festival. He was planning this spring’s Sick! Lab event, was looking for people to talk to in Manchester, and had come across our course website by chance. There must be more straight-forward ways of creating visibility for this exciting, interdisciplinary field of inquiry, Elizabeth and I thought, and started planning the launch of this network. The pump priming grant we’ve been awarded by the University of Manchester Research Institute helps immensely, of course.

How do your own research interests play into the field of medical humanities?

I’m a historian of medicine, and I feel that history is absolutely fundamental to all work in the medical humanities. I believe, for example, that you cannot say anything meaningful about the ways in which a novel or a painting engages with illness if you don’t understand the historical contexts of its production, or those that informed its reception. On the other hand, paintings and novels can be great sources for historians, and my interest in this network partly derives from a desire to find better ways of incorporating such sources in my historical work. Also, I started my career as a social science and humanities scholar with a Joint MA in History and Social Anthropology of Science, Technology and Medicine (my first degree was in Biochemistry). While my PhD project was very much social history, I find myself more and more attracted to anthropological approaches to health, sickness and medicine. My selfish hope is that the network will make it easier for me to pursue such interests.

Carsten Timmermann, A History of Lung Cancer: The Recalcitrant Disease, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014

Carsten Timmermann, A History of Lung Cancer: The Recalcitrant Disease, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014

How would you explain what medical humanities are to a layperson?

This is tricky. There are good reasons for the vagueness of the definitions in the literature, and medical humanities mean different things to different people. But I guess most of it comes down to engaging with illness experiences through art or studying the institutions dealing with illness through humanities and social science methods. The ideal, to me, are interdisciplinary collaborations between artists and historians, literary scholars and musicians, or anthropologists and museum specialists – and that’s where I hope this network can help. It brings together people who take all sorts of scholarly and artistic approaches to questions of health and medicine.

What’s your vision for MedHumLab for the next few months (and in the long run)?

My personal hope is that we turn this network into a foundation for productive conversations, which ultimately lead to joint projects. I don’t know how others feel about this, but to me working solely with colleagues in my own discipline can occasionally get a bit stale. Interdisciplinarity can be challenging, but much of the time it’s refreshing.

We are planning a couple of showcase events in late summer and early autumn that we hope will bring people together around topics of shared interest: one will be on Bodies, Objects, Technologies (featuring, for example, our Museum of Medicine and Health), and the second will deal with Narratives, Lives, Disruptions. We’re also working on a medical humanities interest directory, which will make networking much easier in the future.

And finally, what do you do to relax and unwind away from the office or seminar room?

I have two young boys, eight and five years old, and most weekends are dedicated to them: on Friday evenings we meet with friends in the pub, on Saturdays we go swimming, and on Sundays we often undertake little family cycling trips (the five-year old rides on the stoker seat of a tandem). Ask me again in a few years: the empty nest syndrome may force me to take up hobbies. But I also quite enjoy the rare moments when I can simply stare out of the window, let my mind wander, and do absolutely nothing.

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