The organizers of the conference I attended at Wits University are trying to develop infrastructure for the field of history of medicine in southern Africa. The conference drew an international group of participants, most of whom work on African topics, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, cancer, hospitals, and traditional healers. The keynotes were outstanding and many of the papers excellent. My favorite was from an American graduate student in public health, who pointed out that epidemiologists studying HIV in South Africa tended to import population categories from North America and Europe, namely “men who have sex with men” (MSM). However, that label is not used among the general population there and does not fit their actual behavioral patterns, so he was urging the epidemiology community to re-examine its terminology. I thought it was a great example of the practical usefulness of the humanities to the medical sciences.
“Wits” is the recently shortened moniker for Witwatersrand University, the most prestigious institute of higher education in South Africa. Its original Afrikaans name reveals that it was once a university for whites. Today its student body is racially mixed, the professoriate less so, reflecting a generational gap in the training of non-white scholars and a distrust of historically white institutions. Indeed, at the planning meeting the day after the conference, there were no black Africans and only a single Indian, a genial psychiatrist who sat next to me. He and I talked about integrating more exposure to medical humanities at all stages of medical training and practice. In South Africa, they have a universal curriculum, so this group just needs to find a way to made it on the schedule. Unfortunately, there is talk of decreasing the course length from 5 to 4 years. In the US, every medical humanities program must be tailored to each medical school, so there is more academic freedom but less transferability.
|Exploring the campus on my first day; Hillbrow Tower in the background.|
|Gorgeous view, back-lit photo|
The next night dinner was held in the Adler Museum of Medicine at the medical school. It had a thorough exhibition on the history of
HIV/AIDS as well as artwork inspired by the epidemic. There were also more
traditional objects, like a doctor’s kit, scalpels, and an iron lung. Most of
that was cleared away for all our tables—and a Japanese xylophone player.* Above on the left you can see some of the display cases, in the
background the musician, and to the right the tables filling the museum. They fed us well in general, but the formal
dinner was particularly excellent: in addition to salad and dessert, the main course was salmon and asparagus on mashed potatoes. Unfortunately, on account of me cooking for
myself and eating the rest of my meals at the conference, I didn’t get to experience much quintessential South African cuisine the first few days.
Several of us went out for drinks after the conference ended; I finished off someone’s thin-crust pizza (lead photo). Dear Husband wants to know why I won’t eat pizza in the Northern Hemisphere. Maybe he has to get me drunk first? Ha--good luck with that!
* If anyone could tell me the correct name for this musical instrument, I'd be much obliged.