AHHE-jonathan forblogby Jonathan McFarland

Associate Editor for Medical Humanities, A&HHE



“The rivers flow not past but through us” – John Muir

Jonathan Mc. 4


The Yenisei River runs through the city of Krasnoyarsk. It is the fifth biggest river in the world and one of the three major Siberian rivers, and it starts in Mongolia and flows into the Arctic Ocean. The morning after my arrival in Krasnoyarsk the first thing I saw when I opened the hotel curtains was this powerful river flowing past; blocks of ice still scattered in its waters a reminder of the winter only just past.

Jonathan Mc. 2jpgIn 1890, Anton Chekhov wrote, “On this bank lies Krasnoyarsk, the best and most beautiful of all Siberian towns…” Unfortunately, the beauty of the red cliffs, the river and the picturesque colourful wooden churches that was the city at the end of the nineteenth century has long gone. This is partly to do with the passage of time but more to do with Stalin’s policy to move the armaments factories from Western Russia to Siberia during the Patriotic or Second World War.

In April 2016, I was invited to Krasnoyarsk Medical University, and just its name took me into Russian tumultuous and extraordinary history for the university is named after Prof. V.F.Voino-Yasenetsky,Jonathan Mc. 3 an incredible man who was both an Orthodox Bishop during the Stalin years as well as one of the most eminent war surgeons known, whose quotation I took to heart –  “ For a surgeon, there must not be a “case”, but only a living, suffering person.”  A religious man, whose ability as a doctor and surgeon during the war saved his life, and whose work could easily fit into the long line of medical humanities stretching back to Hippocrates.

In Krasnoyarsk, I gave a lecture entitled ”English in Medicine: Lingua Franca, Education and Medical Humanities”, which was divided into two main parts: the first talked about the importance of English in medicine, the needs of non-English speaking doctors and health care workers, and some of the strategies needed.

The second dwelt on a new approach to the subject of teaching Medical English, and was a short introduction to the importance and use of humanities in Medical Education and Medical English. In the talk, the presenter introduced the topic with a quotation by William Osler, who stated:

“The practice of Medicine is an art based on Science”, and then proceeded to use short texts from recent medical writers such as Gavin Francis and Suzanne O’Sullivan (both practising doctors and writers) to introduce topics important to medicine; for example, “ Is disease a democratising force?” “Is Medicine an art?”, “What is the difference between disease and illness?”, and also a short clip from “The Doctor” was used to accompany the question, “How can a doctor feel empathy for his patient?”. Of course, these questions are difficult to answer, and there is no one true answer, but the idea behind them was to open debate and get the students thinking more deeply about these matters. It seems to have worked because last week I met the Head of the Medical English department, and she said that my talk, and my insistence on using the Humanities in Medical Education and English will become more and more important as medicine become more technologically oriented. The antidote are the humanities.

My short but intense visit to Krasnoyarsk was intensive and extremely stimulating, and I am resolved to return whenever I can; perhaps to journey up the River Yenisei.

As Kipling famously wrote, “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet” but the two should always meet, and, in my case do so, as I will explain in my next post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *