From Haruspicy to Detox: Lecture Puts Liver in Spotlight

Interview with Jody Becker – The Liver Meeting Today Sunday, November 9, 2014, p. 16

Science journalist Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ recent book Anatomies (2013), supposedly an “eye-opening tour” through the secrets of the body, doesn’t even have a chapter-heading for the liver.

For Iain Bamforth, MBChB, DLitt, this omission is notable, if not perplexing. He will address the liver in historical and medical perspective in his Ethics and Humanities State-of-the-Art Lecture “A Toxic History of Modernity: From Black Bile to Living on Light” today at 2:00 pm in the Auditorium in the convention center.

“Without giving everything away, I intend to provide a cultural history of the liver from its right regal status in classical times to its almost absence in the present day,” said Dr. Bamforth, an internationally distinguished figure in the field of medical humanities, whose career has run the gamut from hospital doctor and general practitioner to translator, lecturer in comparative literature, poet and public health consultant in developing countries.

“This will involve us talking about odd activities and states such as haruspicy, hermeneutics, melancholy, hypochondriasis and of course that contemporary fad ‘detox’. I hope to show that even if the liver has been half-forgotten in popular culture it can still provoke visceral feelings!” he said.

The Ethics and Humanities State-of-the-Art Lecture is a new feature of The Liver Meeting, and Dr. Bamforth feels highly honored to have been selected to present this inaugural look at medicine through an ethics and humanities lens.

During this lecture, Dr. Bamforth will explore the curious paradox that health (in spite of the World Health Organization’s controversial definition of it as a condition of complete physical, mental, and social well-being) is actually a negative state. Being healthy means being hale or whole, but also being sublimely indifferent to our condition. Health happens unawares. On the other hand, being conscious about our healthiness may present the possibility of the self-consciousness itself becoming a sickness (hypochondria). Could it be that contemporary medicine and its instructions for living right it itself a sickness?

While a humanities lecture at a scientific meeting may seem peculiar or “soft”, Dr. Bamforth says that in some respects, the ‘hard science’ in the meeting is more straightforward.

“As soon as you approach medicine outside the framework and language of science, a jargon we all understand, crucial issues become terribly intricate and often difficult to assimilate. There are no ‘quick fixes’ in the humanities, which, although they need to know things too, draw on imagination, sympathy, a sense of history and reality, and perhaps even a kind of modesty,” said Dr. Bamforth, who says he has always been drawn to looking at medicine from the outside. He cites the comparative research of the late American scholar Lynn Payer, who compared medical practice in the US with what goes on in the UK, France and Germany.

“The observations in her now slightly dated book Medicine and Culture chime with my own somewhat restless and unconventional experience in medicine, and my activities as a writer: for example, although I’m British I now live in a city (Strasbourg) which is politically French but culturally Germanic… having practised in so many countries it is difficult not to become an anthropologist by default,” he said. He will be contributing some of his own ‘definitions’ of medicine in a book scheduled for publishing in August 2015 called A Doctor’s Dictionary, which brings together about twenty years’ worth of writings on medicine and culture.

Dr. Bamforth hopes attendees leave with a sense of how the liver and hepatology extend in unexpected ways into conceptions and misconceptions about health and sickness.

“And, of course, I hope they’ll be mindful that there is no such thing as stand-alone science: in an age when the ‘money nexus’ is ever more important we have to understand how

media influence and popular mythologies spill over into what has been called ‘health-seeking behaviour’.”