Over the past month I’ve helped to organise the first major conference on the medical humanities in southern Africa. Titled Body Knowledge, and hosted by the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research earlier this week, the conference brought together a disparate group of academics from all over the world, and specialising in a variety of disciplines: from anthropology to nursing, and from epidemiology to cultural studies.
I think we pulled it off too. It was certainly a fun conference: the food was excellent, I learned a great deal – about my own area of specialisation and others – and was surprised by how frequently papers presented from wildly different disciplines spoke to each other in interesting and quite thought-provoking ways. We’re keen for this new field of the medical humanities not only to encourage collaboration and contact between the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural and medical sciences, but also to be communicated to those outside of the academy. The Mail and Guardian has published a collection of articles drawn from the conference:
Because I was part of the group keeping the conference running, I didn’t attend many sessions, but I did get to the two on medicine and nutrition (partly because I chaired one of them). The first included two papers: Kristen Ehrenberger (who’s enrolled for both a medical degree and a PhD in History at the University of Illinois) discussed how Germans’ ideas around ‘healthy’ food shifted during the Allied blockade of the First World War; and Thomas Cousins, an anthropologist at Stellenbosch University, argued for the necessity of a cultural and social study of the gut.
In the second session, Louise Vincent and Chantelle Malan from Rhodes University questioned the ways in which the obesity ‘crisis’ has been framed by both medical professionals and organisations with a vested interest in controlling people’s weight. Similarly, Michelle Pentecost – a medical doctor who’s completing an MA in anthropology at Oxford – pointed out that obesity is caused less by individual sloth and lack of self-control, than is the outcome of a complex set of social, political, and economic processes which shape people’s health over long periods of time.
Catherine Burns, my colleague at WiSER, spoke about the need to write histories of breastfeeding in South Africa (she’s written about histories of sex in South Africa too), and Vashna Jagarnath, also of Rhodes, presented a fascinating paper on Gandhi’s shifting attitudes towards diet after his move to London in 1881. She made the point that his embrace of vegetarianism was the product of an association with the Vegetarian Society and with the social and political radicals, many of them early supporters of Indian nationalism, who were part of the Society (people like Annie Besant, for instance). He went on to publish extensively on how best to eat, and, as Vashna noted, his views on diet were increasingly tangled with his politics.
Although on a wide range of subjects, these papers made a few key points: people’s decisions what and how to eat are shaped by a variety of factors, only some of which they are aware; food and nutrition are always political (they are implicated in the ways in which power functions); and our ideas about what is ‘good’ to eat have changed – and are changing – over time and place. In other words, there was no particular moment, or there is no specific place, where people ate, or are eating, a ‘perfect’ diet (whatever we may mean by that).
Although histories of food and nutrition have attracted scant attention from southern African scholars, the field is growing, both in size and prominence, internationally. I think the best indicator of its growing academic respectability is the fact that the theme of this year’s Anglo-American Conference at the Institute of Historical Research in London, was Food in History.
Histories of food have the potential to descend into a kind of pedantic, irritating antiquarianism, but they are also crucial to understanding histories of consumerism, agriculture, the body, and medicine. Indeed, anyone interested in medical histories of childhood has to focus on the significance of nutrition in efforts to improve children’s health during the early twentieth century.
We are – and have been for a very long time – what, how, and why we eat.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.