Western Mail Profiles: Dr Martin Willis, University of Glamorgan

‘Fiction helps to focus on human impact of illness’
Dr Martin Willis is Reader in English Literature at the University of Glamorgan.  In this article he explains how literature and culture can tell us about attitudes towards medicine and how his research can help shape the future of healthcare.

Why is someone like me, who writes about history and fiction, involved in the Welsh Crucible? And what can I contribute to science in Wales?

I always have the same answer to that – science is about people as well as about discoveries. This is why it’s hugely important to have someone like me working with the scientific community in Wales.

As a researcher in the humanities – what we call the academic work of history and literature – it is the human that is foremost in our thoughts.

My own research is about the relationship between people, diseases and hospitals. I look closely at how these relationships have changed over time, and what this tells us about how we think about illness and its institutions.

To do this I look at examples from the past; at novels and poetry. I also talk to people living with illness in Wales today. Their stories are enormously valuable in helping us to understand more about Wales and its healthcare.

My research puts these different stories together to paint a picture of our relationship as people with medicine and medical institutions.

In my most recent research project, I asked a group of people in South Wales to take part in some creative writing. They wrote about visiting hospital for the first time after discovering they were ill.

Many of them wrote about the other patients they saw as monsters – one writer spoke of looking into a ward of patients with kidney disease and seeing them as gruesome, yellow creatures.

They were expressing their own fears about their illness. And they are in good company.

The history of medicine shows us people have always imagined disease as a kind of living monster that attacks us.

In literature, too, disease is often shown as a terrifying creature – like Frankenstein’s monster, who is a creation of science, or Count Dracula, who attacks people in the same way as an infectious disease.

Doing this kind of research can help patients in Wales understand that they are not alone in their anxieties and concerns when faced with illness.

It can be heartening to know your own ancestors thought the same thing, or that Charles Dickens wrote about it.

But my research can also help to shape the future of healthcare in Wales.

In talking to hospital managers or the Welsh Government, my research helps me to show how we think about illness and hospitals from the patient’s perspective. This can have an influence on what decisions are made about healthcare provision and medical education.

My work isn’t going to help us find further treatments for cancer – I really admire those who are doing that – but it can make the experience of being ill and going to hospital a little easier.

To contact Martin email mwillis@glam.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 25th July 2011, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.