Inside and outside the body

15 October 2007

Suburban Shaman: Award-winning author Dr Cecil Helman (class of '67) is back at UCT for stints in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine and the social anthropology department, combining his twin interests. Sub-urban Shaman is filled with stories of how the lives of doctors and patients are interwoven, a picture of medicine that goes well beyond science.

"One encounter with a skilled social doctor is worth 100 lessons," Dr Cecil Helman says from his office in social anthropology.

To become a medical doctor you have to be an applied social scientist and medical scientist, he adds.

"Isn't that amazing?" he continues. Fresh from London, the view of Devil's Peak from the Arts Block delights him.

The UCT alumnus and senior lecturer at the Royal Free & University College Medical School, London, is here for a sabbatical as a visiting professor in social anthropology and visiting professor in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine.

Social doctor? All is explained in his book Suburban Shaman. In March last year it was the BBC Book of the Week and was later serialised on Radio 4. More recently it won the 2007 Medical Journalists Association Book Award, made at the Royal College of General Practitioners on 5 July.

The work draws on Helman's rich medical and anthropological experience, reflecting on health and illness within the bounds of community, tradition and history.

It was previously published in South Africa in 2004 as Suburban Shaman: A journey through medicine.

Popular literature is not his only contribution to the understanding of medicine. While working as GP in north London, Helman researched folk beliefs such as "feed a cold, starve a fever". He wrote Culture, Health and Illness in 1984, a guide to medical care with a cultural slant, a standard textbook on the subject and is used by students in over 40 countries.

Helman qualified MBChB at UCT in 1967 and studied social anthropology at University College London. It was only after a trip to the US that he found he could combine his twin interest through medical anthropology, a "new and marginal discipline" back in the 1970s.

Suburban Shaman is filled with stories of how the lives of doctors and patients are interwoven, a picture of medicine that goes well beyond science.

Medical science is nice but not sufficient - and his anthropological studies underline that.

"I'm aware of the strengths and limitations of Western medicine and the importance of learning from other forms of healing," he says. 'We must look at events not in the body but outside the body for diagnosis."

Medicine is in his blood. He comes from a long line of medicine men, 12 doctors in 200 years.

"But in our pursuit of technological brilliance and scientific discourse we are losing our human touch."

Think of the young patient who is a bed wetter. To treat them, says Helman, you have to dig for causes, examining the external things, the daily chronicles of family life, which affect the internal body.

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