Trying my hand at history and humanities

For many, the idea of early retirement is a dream and doing more work is the last thing on their mind. For others, it’s forced upon them and in the case of Innes Simon Chadwick, whilst his time as a doctor is over, he has far from finished learning about medicine.

Here he gives us a deeper insight the highly unique and deeply varied world of Medical Humanities: a course even Simon admitted he didn’t entirely understand at first, but one he has grown to relish and hopes to better explain to others…

simon chadwick

I am a 59-year-old (approaching 60 in August), former consultant anaesthetist and clinical director, as well as a speciality college tutor, trained in the North West and having worked in Manchester-based consultancy since 1992. As I write this, despite the wealth of experience I have already gained, I now find myself in the 2nd year of a part-time master’s degree. Here’s why.

In the summer of 2017, I was facing early retirement due to a neurological condition affecting the fine dexterity in my dominant hand. I had always thought when I planned to retire, that it might be interesting to undertake a part-time degree relating to history, as I had to give up on the subject at O-Level and when thinking about university applications; I began to think combining aspects of medicine and history might be an option.

Faced with having to leave work somewhat precipitously, I discovered that Manchester offered a Medical Humanities degree, which combined aspects of the arts as well as history. After a few emails and a conference call with the two senior lecturers, Sarah and Carsten, I was accepted onto the course.

From then, a reading list appeared and I had to go and find out what Medical Humanities actually was! During my interview, Sarah assured me that I would find it interesting: little did I know how right she would be!

September 2017: I found myself walking up the same steps of the medical school that I had first walked up as a naïve 1st year undergraduate in 1978 – Medical Humanities hadn’t yet entered the building back then either.

So, what have I learned so far? Well, even after 35 years after of working in anaesthesia, it has challenged me to look at medicine in a completely different way by trying to empathise with and see things from the side of the sick, rather than just from a doctor’s perspective.

waiting room

I have had to think critically about illness when appraising its representation in drama and narrative styles, attempting to emulate those themes through drawn and painted art. In terms of historical content, the course has been brilliant and presents some challenging and provocative aspects of history too.

The other aspect I have relished is the freedom to look at various different areas of medical history that are alien to my own, relatively narrow field. I have written essays on everything from the history of tuberculosis, to Victorian women and the diagnosis of ‘the wandering womb’; asylums and madness, the ethics of lobotomy, all the way up to colonial disease and the tsetse fly.

We have looked at music and illness, drama in medicine, gone on to compose our own dramatic pieces and even write poetry: all of which I never knew I was capable of. It has been a steep, varied, but overall enjoyable learning curve and the process of writing a creative journal has been a self-indulgent adventure.

Bedside Cabinet of a Departed Memory

A cabinet resides beside the Aunt’s bed
Ninety four years, a closing life
A camera, clicks ninety four years
A solitary childhood photograph. Three young sisters
An old “forty five“ rotates , clicks, the needle stuck,
Clicks, the repetitive conversation of a departing mind
An old and solitary corroded key
Clicks the padlock of lost memories
An old alarm clock emotionless
Lost in search of the irretrievable times
An old and worn address book
acquaintances passed, some recalled

In the bottom drawer,
A solitary holiday trinket
It’s memory since drifted
As blown sands of a beach
A threadbare childhood bible
Accompanied this long life




I have been enthused to read about many topics and how illness has been represented in the art and literature, such as syphilis and representations of gender and illness – a theme that has made for some of the most challenging seminars to date.

The course is purposefully designed to encourage individual pursuits and interests with freedom, offering great opportunities to sample modules from all around the university. I took a module on journalism and communication: others have undertaken courses, along with the ability to pursue a dissertation on almost anything from writing music to a narrow theoretical historical topic.

Another brilliant part of the course has been the small but intimate group of students: from intercalating medical students to drama, linguistics and literature students, all the way up to part-time, 60-year-old GPs like myself. This bubbling cauldron of ages and backgrounds has made for such an intriguing mix of people.

If any mature students are thinking of stepping off the treadmill and want a challenge to keep them on their toes, sign up – I am tempted to enrol again and do the modules that I couldn’t fit in the first time around!

medhumlab snap

Why not check out the course’s own blog page, MedHumLab?

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