Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Telling a story of body parts

Blog by Ann Lingard - Genomics Forum Bright Ideas Fellow

Would you donate your eyes, your brain, biopsy samples or an amputated limb? And why would you do it - for research, to help someone who needed new organs, for teaching purposes, or for display in a Museum? If you have donated bits of yourself, for any reason, would you like me to write the story of how and why you made this decision? And if you are long, long dead, would you mind if I tried to find out more about you, and wrote your story too?

Amongst the extraordinary collections at the Surgeons' Hall Museum there are skeletons, plaster-casts of faces, amputated limbs, fixed pathological tissues and foetuses, and a collection of surgeons' 'memorabilia' - drawings and tools of their trade - which help us to put in context just why some of the human specimens have ended up in Museum shelves. But 'specimen' is a dry word: these organs and bones were 'donated' by human beings, each of whom had a life, perhaps in a town, on a farm, perhaps with a family and friends; or perhaps he or she was ridiculed and despised.

As a bioscientist I was well-used to looking at 'things in jars' in museums, and as a parasitologist I looked at some pretty gruesome things, but it was not until I started visiting anatomy collections as research for my most recent novel that I really began to think about the people from whom the specimens had come. Because Edinburgh had been so important in producing high-calibre surgeons, many of whom practised in Scotland -- and whose patients subsequently provided specimens -- the Surgeons' Hall Museum was the obvious place to go. And Andrew Connell, the Collections Manager, has such a great interest in and empathy with the donor-patients, that every visit to the Museum has helped me attempt to understand more and more about the donors' lives.

I chose various specimens with his help, and the hunt for background details has taken me to the National Library, the Lothian Health Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, and to meetings and conversations with a great variety of people, from artists and poets who have created work about specimens at the Museum, to a lady who lived and played in Hill Square in the 1930s, to an amazing county archivist who tracked down all kinds of personal (and subsequently anonymised) details about one of the specimens.I have been enormously helped with all this by Steve Sturdy, through his own great interest in 'making sense' of the Museum's Collection.

It was often a relief to escape from the occasionally heart-breaking and puzzling Museum Collection to the brightness and welcoming friendliness of the Genomics Forum! The physical warmth and good coffee were especially welcome back in December, when the army had been called in to help clear the streets of snow (and there was a special bonus to being a Visiting Fellow that month in that my visit coincided with the excellent and very sociable Christmas lunch at Iggs). That time I had to dash across to Glasgow a day earlier than expected because of the heavy snowfalls that were forecast in the evening -- I had arranged to meet someone who runs the 'eye retrieval unit'. That has been the other part of my work as a 'Bright Ideas' Visiting Fellow - to talk to and write the stories of people who are involved in the modern donation process, whether as donors, potential donors, or even collectors, of tissue, DNA, organs. I've been really privileged to have the Forum's support and help in this, as the contacts I have been able to make and the people I have met through EGF have been so helpful and enthusiastic (if occasionally a little surprised!).

The Forum, too, provided a home for an informal get-together that I arranged and that Steve Sturdy chaired, to discuss some of the stories that I had already written: poets Diana Hendry and Christine de Luca, artist Joyce Gunn Cairns, Andrew Connell from the Museum, Robin Morton from Generation Scotland, Calum MacKellar from the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, and of course Pippa Goldschmidt, the Forum's own Writer in Residence, were invited. It can be pretty terrifying as a writer to stick your head above the parapet, and hand out your fiction for comment, especially to other writers! But all kinds of helpful and often surprising comments and ideas arose -- and one of Pippa's comments made me wonder subsequently whether my curiosity about the donor-patients could be seen as a form of voyeurism or sensation-seeking? I hope I will have found an answer to that troubling question before the pieces of fiction and non-fiction appear on the Forum's forthcoming 'Creative Space'. But I also hope that if you read "Lisa's story" under Chromosome 4 on Ken MacLeod's Human Genre Project, and follow the related links, you might, as one reader commented, find yourself "made aware rather uncomfortably of some prejudices I'd rather I didn't have!"

Ann Lingard
A former academic and research scientist in zoology and parasitology, at Cambridge then Glasgow, Ann Lingard changed career to write novels and non-fiction. As well as collaborating with artists and other scientists herself, she works to bring scientists and writers together, through talks and workshops and by setting up the resource for writers, SciTalk, http://www.scitalk.org.uk/. She especially enjoys finding ways to enthuse non-scientists of all ages about science, whether through illustrated talks, walks on the Solway shore, Café Scientifique, or even poetry events. Her latest novel is The Embalmer's Book of Recipes, and her websites are http://www.annlingard.com/ and (under her married name, Ann Lackie) http://www.plumblandconsulting.co.uk/

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