by Sari Altschuler
Musing, in the first months of a new century, on what he called “Infectious History,” Nobel Prize–winning microbiologist Joshua Lederberg (2000, 290) predicted, “The future of humanity and microbes will likely unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be titled Our Wits versus Their Genes.” Lederberg was instrumental in defining the phenomenon that came to be known as “emerging infections.” The term referred to the proliferation of microbes that caused catastrophic communicable disease in humans. For Lederberg and his colleagues, the phenomenon was not an unknowable threat but a predictable effect of a kind of progress: an expanding global population was moving into areas that had been un- or sparsely inhabited by human beings—thus developing those spaces—while improvements in transportation and an increasingly global economy were moving goods and people rapidly around the world. As these microbes encountered a new species—humans, hence a new food source—they also found a new form of transportation, enabling them to hitchhike around the globe, perhaps mutating in the process. Humans are “major engineers of biological traffic,” warned Stephen Morse, Lederberg’s colleague, referring not only to literal transportation but also to the practices through which humans produce the ideal conditions for biological growth and dispersal (Morse 1996, 24).
The word humanities is at the core of the medical and health humanities. Still, anyone who has walked into a room of health-care practitioners, students, and humanities professors ready to do medical humanities or health humanities work knows all are eager to improve the practices of health care, but individuals differ—sometimes radically—in their understanding of what that work is. Today’s debates over defining the health humanities frequently focus on the differences between health and medicine (Crawford et al. 2010; T. Jones et al. 2017), but some of the most challenging differences emerge from divergent understandings of the word humanities. These differences are not merely inside baseball: they determine what kinds of interventions into the practices of health care are possible.
Keywords for Health Humanities provides a rich, interdisciplinary vocabulary for the burgeoning field of health humanities and, more broadly, for the study of medicine and health. Sixty-five entries by leading international scholars examine current practices, ideas, histories, and debates around health and illness, revealing the social, cultural, and political factors that structure health conditions and shape health outcomes.
For a limited time, read the introduction to Keywords for Health Humanities