As you may have seen, we’ve been adding some amazing contributors to Wonders & Marvels. We want you to get to know each of them. This time around, we’re hearing from the amazing Helen King, Queen of the Traveling Vulva!
Here’s a sampling of Helen’s W&M posts. Some of my favorites include:
Holly Tucker: Hi Helen. So glad to have you on the W&M and it’s great that we’ve actually met now at the ‘Retelling Familiar Tales of Pregnancy and Childbirth’ conference you co-organised! Could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?
Helen King: It’s great to be here! I am Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University. The OU was founded about 40 years ago and it’s genuinely ‘open’ – anyone can enrol with us, regardless of their qualifications, or lack of them. We offer supported distance learning, meaning that you use coursebooks, CDs, DVDs, online materials and also a personal relationship with your own tutor, possible face-to-face, possibly by email, phone and skype, depending on what works for you. There are all sorts of ways in, for example through ‘Openings’, http://www8.open.ac.uk/study/explained/study-explained/our-range-courses/openings-courses&samsredir=1342107829 which allow people new to study to try it out. I think that W&M is about a similar sort of openness.
HT: When did you know that you wanted to be a historian–and a historian of medicine to boot?
HK: I’ve always been obsessed with the ancient world, and I blame my parents for calling me ‘Helen’. I grew up on the stories of Helen of Troy. My first degree was in ancient history and social anthropology. I liked the idea of approaching the Greeks and Romans through social anthropology even though the traditional methodology of social anthropology – participant observation, living with the people you are studying – is unfortunately not really an option! I moved sideways into history of medicine because my PhD was on ancient Greek menstruation. And then I moved forwards into the Renaissance and later historical eras because I wanted to find out how people thought about ancient medicine before such modern things as the circulation of the blood, and antibiotics, and X-rays.
HT: I usually pick topics not because I know much about them, but because I know that I want to learn more. What areas still mystify you when it comes to the history of medicine? What do you want most to learn?
HK: I want to know a lot more about what happens when an idea that you really believe in – for example, that bloodletting is good for you – meets a new idea – like the circulation of the blood. How do people – patients – actually feel, at the time when ideas don’t quite add up? And how do patients and physicians arrive at a diagnosis – how much is about asking leading questions, how much is about observation? I’ve also been doing some work recently on art history, an area to which I am a complete newcomer. I was involved with a recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition and have also recorded a podcast on Titian. Reading paintings is not like reading texts but I love trying it!
HT: OK, so here’s the question I always ask: If you could spend one day in the past, what day would it be? Why?
HK: Very difficult question! There are so many tantalising possibilities, but one would certainly be the day Alexander the Great died. I don’t really like retrospective diagnosis – if we have a description of a patient’s symptoms, does it actually help if we give them a modern label? – but I would like to know what happened to him. I grew up on Mary Renault’s novels about Alexander (my favourite is ‘The Persian Boy’) and I have to admit to a combination of hero-worship and desire where Alexander is concerned! What a guy – flawed, OK, but what a guy. Maybe I could have saved him…
Helen King was trained at University College London and has held posts at Cambridge, Newcastle, Liverpool and Reading before taking up her current position at the Open University. She has worked with a number of funding committees at the Wellcome Trust and the AHRC. In her spare time, she is a licensed lay preacher in the Church of England and a street pastor. She rather doubts whether the Church of England knows about her work on the history of therapeutic masturbation.