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Matters of Life and Death: Topics in the Medical Humanities (HI991)

Module Convenor: Roberta Bivins

Term: Spring (Weeks 11-20, but no meeting in Reading Week)

Time: Tuesday 13:00-15:00, Room FAB6.02, unless otherwise noted.

Context of Module
Module Aims
Intended Learning Outcomes
Module Approach: Student Led Learning
Context of Module

'Matters of Life and Death' is the Term Two core module for the MA in the History of Medicine. The module, taught in the Spring Term, may also be taken by students following any other MA programme in the History Department. 'Matters of Life and Death' will address a range of topics in the history of medicine via selected books and articles authored by teaching and research staff in the Centre for the History of Medicine and Department of History. In each seminar, they will be joined by the author of the week's text(s). Student-led discussions with the authors will enable close study and reflection on each text's sources, methodologies and historiographical and theoretic approaches. This will enable students to consider the emergence of new histories of health, embodiment and medical history, as well as the new challenges of work in the medical humanities. All students are encouraged to relate the module's discussions to their own dissertation research and approaches.

Module Aims

The principal aim of this module is to enrich the work our students do (in terms of reading, learning, research and writing) for the History of Medicine MA programme, and to support them specifically in developing wide and deep expertise in fields and methodologies related to their individual MA dissertations. Students planning to join the module in Term Two are welcome to contact Roberta Bivins (module convener) in advance if they have any questions about the module approach, structure, readings, or assessments.

Intended Learning Outcomes
By the end of the module students should be able to:
  • Review the advanced literature in a variety of areas in the history of medicine and the medical humanities.
  • Assess the theoretical underpinnings of this work.
  • Draw on key concepts from one or more of the social, human and literary sciences.
  • Work confidently with a wide variety of relevant primary source material.
Module Approach: Student Led Learning

The 'Matters of Life and Death' module provides the opportunity for students to analyse a series of issues in the history of medicine in depth, responding to a broad range of student interest in histories of the body and mind, gender and medicine, public health, disease, disability, race and science. Each seminar introduces students to an important recent contribution to the field of the history of medicine, and provides the opportunity to discuss this work with the authors. This will enable students to develop an understanding of how the field is now evolving in tackling issues of life and death. It will also develop critical thinking about the challenges in undertaking such historical work. An introductory seminar will focus on strategy for interviewing historians about their work and its situation within the field. It will allocate roles, discuss areas for questions and a structure for the seminars, and identify further readings and reviews to assist analysis of the core texts. The emphasis will be on equipping students to take a lead in the organisation and intellectual direction of the seminars. The seminars in Weeks 2-9 will put these plans into operation. These seminars will centre on reading a book or articles written (or being written) by a member of staff in History of Medicine at Warwick. All texts are accessible electronically via the Warwick Library. The final seminar in Week 10 will give students the opportunity to present their own research ideas, building on the intersecting themes, conclusions and methods that have been presented throughout the term. Students will be encouraged to draw from the seminars and the readings in their essays for the module. The subjects and titles of these essays will need to be agreed with the module convenor.


Week 1: Introduction (Roberta Bivins)

'Making the "Turns"'

Week 2: Student Choice Selective Social Histories of Medicine OR an idiosyncratic view of Global Medicine (Roberta Bivins). Valentine and Claire

This week you can choose to explore one of two different subjects, but also one of two very different forms of historical knowledge making: either the curation of an edited volume or the creation of a book intended for students and general readers.

Reading: Either 

Roberta Bivins and John Pickstone, Medicine, Madness and Social History: Essays in Honour of Roy Porter. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2007

---, Alternative Medicine? A History (Oxford University Press, 2007)

Week 3: Prisons, Mental Breakdown, and Co-Authoring in the History of Medicine (Hilary Marland) James

Again, this week showcases a different style of knowledge production in history, this time the process of researching and writing as a team, as part of a funded project.


Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, Disorder Contained: Mental Breakdown and the Modern Prison in England and Ireland, 1840-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 2022) (pick a couple of chapters to explore e.g. chs 2 and 5). Open Access:

Hilary will also talk about the public outreach work connected to the prison project, involving the production of a play, audio installations and work with theatre companies in prisons, based on the project's research and findings. Explore the project website here, and think about the different ways that Hilary and her team presented their research to public audiences. What can this tell you about writing history?

Week 4: Mathew Thomson Making Up (Psychological) People Andy


This week, as well as interviewing Mathew Thomson about his work, he will take time to discuss the long essay with you all.


Mathew Thomson. Psychological Subjects: Identity, Culture, and Health in Twentieth-Century Britain. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006,

Week 5: Disability and the (Soviet) State (Claire Shaw) Meg and Andy


Claire L. Shaw, Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, Community, and Soviet Identity, 1917-1991. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2017.

Week 6: Reading Week

Week 7: Jamie Banks Empire, Migrants and Markets Meg and James

This week you will have a chance to talk to an author about the book he is currently writing, and all that this process entails. The PDF of his chapter can be downloaded here.


Bound by Opium: Migrants and Markets Across the British Empire (Chapters from this work-in-progress to be distributed/ made available by Jamie in advance).

Week 8: Health, Politics, and the Drug Trade (Ben Smith) Valentine and Claire

How do you write controversial histories, whether for general readers or historical specialists? Let's all ask Ben!


Benjamin T. Smith, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade. Ebury Press, London, 2021.

Week 9: Environmental History and Interdisciplinary Approaches (Katayoun Shafiee) James


    • Shafiee, Katayoun. Machineries of Oil: An Infrastructural History of BP in Iran. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018.

Week 10: Curating Medicine (Roberta Bivins).

Students will travel to a museum or heritage site to meet curators and discuss how histories of medicine and health are presented to general audiences.



Roberta Bivins (convenor); Hilary Marland;

Mathew Thomson;

Claire Shaw;

Jamie Banks; Ben Smith; Katayoun Shaifee

Term Spring
Tutorial Day Tuesday



1-3pm unless otherwise noted

FAB, 6.02 unless otherwise noted


Kahn Der Mensch als Industriepalast 1920DNA projected on pregnant womanFludd Microcosmia 1619

Bermondsey 1930s

AIDS Ribbon Ethiopia