Humanities and Health panel discussion of ‘A Fortunate Man’

This September there have been several events in and around KCL on the writer, artist, and art critic John Berger, celebrating the 40th anniversary of his seminal ‘Ways of Seeing’ BBC programme and Booker prize-winning novel, G. (1972). Last week saw the conference ‘Ways of Seeing John Berger’ held at the Old Anatomy Theatre and Museum, organised by the British Library (to whom Berger donated his archive in 2009) and the KCL English department. There is also an excellent ongoing exhibition in the new exhibition space at Somerset House, with material from the archive.

Of particular interest for medical humanities readers was the special panel to which the Centre for Humanities and Health contributed at the conference, on Berger’s book A Fortunate Man (1967), a non-fiction account of the life and work of a GP working in rural England in the 1960s. The book has a devoted following among those who have read it, including our chair, Dr. Iona Heath, but is still not as widely known as it should be, and has drifted in and out of print. Brian Hurwitz, the director of our centre, offered an account of the book in the context of post war social medicine, and its reception among clinical professionals, for many of whom it became almost cult reading. Indeed, it is still sometimes described by GPs as the most important book about general practice ever written (the article linked followed a celebration of the book at another Berger event in 2005). Brian also discussed the book’s striking photography, by Jean Mohr, some of which can be seen here.

Michael Flexer discussed the book’s idea of its central figure, ‘Dr. John Sassall’ (a pseudonym) as ‘universal man’, which for Michael is a formulation of the doctor’s catholicity and autonomy very much at odds with contemporary political notions of general practitioners as ‘free’ principally in terms of their economically defined status as purchasers and commissioners of health services. I discussed the book qua essay, in terms of its genre and formal features, and its echoing of traditions and themes of humanistic essayism going back to Renaissance writers such as Montaigne and Thomas Browne, coloured with the Marxist humanism central to Berger’s intellectual outlook. I argued that this combination, and thinking about the form and substance of ‘the essay’, gives readers of A Fortunate Man something of an object-lesson in critical medical humanities. Both Brian and I were lucky enough to be able to used material newly arrived in the archive, including Mohr’s original photos, contemporary press clippings, and letters to and from ‘Sassall’ and Berger. I hope that this, and the discussion we had among an audience of Berger experts, gave an added dimension to our appreciation of a medical humanities classic.

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About James Whitehead

Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in English, Liverpool John Moores University
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