A lockdown literary festival in medicine

Andrew Papanikitas is President of the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, Deputy Editor of the BJGP, and a GP in Oxford. He is on twitter: @gentlemedic

Arts festivals connected to health and medicine are not unknown, with notable examples like the Health Film Festival in Greece and Medicine Unboxed in the UK. More often health and medicine sneak into events such as the Hay or Oxford Literary festivals. In the spring of 2021, the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (one of London’s medical livery companies) allowed our History and Philosophy Faculty to run a small festival, the talks from which are now publicly accessible via YouTube.

The move of many mainstream literary festivals from in-person to online during the UK lockdowns of 2020–2021, meant that the tricky element of finding and funding a space and arranging travel vanished. A small group of us were able to persuade the History and Philosophy Faculty to run a 2-day online event. Delegates paid a nominal fee to attend live Zoom sessions, which were recorded for posterity.

“We wanted to offer the days as cheaply as possible as something to help friends and colleagues stay connected.”

We wanted to offer the days as cheaply as possible as something to help friends and colleagues stay connected. While the balance of enthusiasm over experience often shows, we assembled a head blend of local and international talent spanning philosophy, creative writing, history, and popular science.

The programme is still available online and can be viewed according to interest or as a case study in community event creation. The removal of geography meant that novelist Samuel Shem could give a keynote on his new book, Man’s 4th Best Hospital, and new developments in the House of God biblio-verse. He did this from his home in the US — a real insight into a writer’s environment!

The need for solidarity and support meant all contributors donated their time and expertise. This is of course something that is common in the voluntary economy of medical education — and not necessarily sustainable in the long term. We were also particularly pleased to involve Sam Guglani of Medicine Unboxed and the Bigger Picture team.

The talks of the faculty festival:

Day 1 (22 April 2021)

Day 2 (23 April 2021)

The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries has a long association with UK medicine, and general practice in particular. The surgeon apothecaries of the 18th and 19th centuries are the historical forerunners of today’s GP. Since the 1960s the Society has maintained a community of interest in the history of medicine, with philosophy added in the 1970s. The Faculty of History and Philosophy now maintains courses (and examinations) in history and philosophy and an impressive array of eponymous lectures at the historic Apothecaries’ Hall in Blackfriars, as well as a back catalogue of recordings on and collaborations with the Royal College of General Practitioners, such as the Rose Prize and Poetry in Practice initiative.

While the festival ran on a shoestring budget and good will, we would love to repeat the festival in the foreseeable future, ideally at the Apothecaries’ Hall, or perhaps across multiple London venues. It would be great for these authors and discussions to find new audiences. It would also be great to find out about similar events over the last 2 years, perhaps in the comments section, or perhaps in reviews and accounts submitted to BJGP Life. Let’s inspire each other!

Extra special thanks are due to Maria Ferran, Briony Hudson, and Katie Amiel, who formed the active core of the festival, as well as to all contributors, faculty executive committee and staff, and officers of the Society.

Featured image: Samuel Shem talks about staying human in medicine (YouTube video), photo by Andrew Papanikitas, 2022.

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