Medicine, Magic, and Witchcraft… Oh, My

April 3, 2017

Amanda Nagy

group poses during a visit to the Old Operating Theater and Herb Garret in London
The group poses during a visit to the Old Operating Theater and Herb Garret in London, the oldest surviving operating theater in Europe.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Drew Wilburn

This spring, a class of Oberlin students is studying the history of medicine, the biology of cancer, and ancient practices of magic and witchcraft, all while immersing themselves in the culture and history of London.

The Danenburg Oberlin-in-London program is an interdisciplinary study away offered each spring. It gives students the opportunity to take classes with two Oberlin faculty from different departments while also learning about London’s history and theater.

This year’s program is led by faculty members Maureen Peters, associate professor of biology, and Drew Wilburn, associate professor and chair of classics, with courses geared toward students majoring in life sciences and preparing for health careers. Resident Director Donna Vinter teaches the London Stage.

“We worked hard through our advertising and networking to make this opportunity widely known to science students since they have fewer study abroad opportunities that count toward their majors,” Peters says. “We had a big turnout from the life sciences. In fact, we had to turn away some very talented applicants this year, which was hard to do.”

Peters and Wilburn have teamed up to teach The History of Medicine: Germs, Sex, and the Brain, an interdisciplinary course that counts toward a major in biology, classics, or history. The class traces the development of scientific methods for understanding the body from antiquity to modernity. It’s full of juicy topics such as infectious diseases, epidemics, mental health and madness, and sexuality and reproductive health.

Wilburn has previously worked in the British Museum for his research on ancient magic. He’s teaching a classics course that traces the history of magic and witchcraft in the United Kingdom, with a special focus on the ways in which magic has been contrasted and opposed to established religion.

He says the material in the team course has helped him put ancient concerns into greater perspective.

“The joint course has helped me think about how prevalent concerns about health were in the pre-modern world, where magic and religion—in addition to bleeding—were the major kinds of ‘medicine’ that most people used. I’ve realized how much has changed because of scientific discoveries. I am thinking more about how medical amulets and protections against the evil eye are related to fears about infectious disease, which could easily kill you or your young children.”

Peters teaches genetics and researches the digestive program of C. elegans —microscopic worms that serve as model organisms to study biological processes, which can be applied to more complex organisms—using molecular genetics approaches. She says the resources in London—the museums, lectures, and site visits—have been astounding.

The Wellcome Collection, a medical, art, and science museum that’s a 10-minute walk from Oberlin’s remote campus, has been a second home for the group and a never-ending resource of material, Peters says. In February, the Wellcome presented the “Sick of the Fringe”, a series of lectures and performances on the topics of health, medical illness, and disability from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that students were able to attend.

In their first trip out of London, the group visited the house of Dr. Edward Jenner, the pioneer of vaccination against smallpox, where they listened to a lecture that highlighted the contributions of D.A. Henderson ’50. They also visited Stonehenge, Bath, and Gloucester Cathedral, with more visits planned for Edinburgh, the Foundling Museum, and Bethlem Museum of the Mind. And at the Hunterian Museum, which is the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, they’ve browsed the massive collection of specimens in jars on permanent display.

Peters is teaching the Biology of Cancer, a course designed especially for life sciences majors, that looks at the disease from the smallest to the largest biological perspectives. London is the home of important biomedical research centers, such as the University College London Cancer Institute and the Francis Crick Institute.

“Our teaching center is just down the street for University College London, which is an amazing research center,” Peters says. “I have been able to go to many talks from cutting-edge researchers around the world. Many of these talks gather massive information about the genetic changes that underlie cancer cells’ ability to circumvent our bodies’ energy sources and other resources for their own benefit. While my own research area is not specifically cancer genetics, I can use these novel approaches to answer the research questions that drive me.”

Third-year Julie Watiker, a biology major, has been researching the history of rabies at the British Library and the Wellcome Collection for her semester-long project in the History of Medicine course.

“I found several books and pamphlets from the 18th century on how rabies was treated, and it was really interesting to be able to read the original texts on how people understood the disease before modern science,” says Watiker, who is from Scarsdale, New York, and intends to apply to veterinary school beginning this summer. “Studying the history of medicine and researching rabies, as well as the biology of cancer, has really helped me understand that going to veterinary school is the right step for me. I even took a tour at the Royal Veterinary College in London, and I plan to apply.”

Watiker says the integration of field trips into the coursework, such as the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret in London, or a day trip learning about all the scientific discoveries to come out of Cambridge, has been an experience like no other. And because she elected to take The London Stage as her third course, the program has given her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become immersed in the city’s theater scene.

“We see a new play every week, ranging from large stage productions with Daniel Radcliffe in the West End, to smaller, more experimental productions in the basements of town halls. Being able to read, discuss a play, and then see the plays has been an invaluable experience, and has really enhanced my time in London. I would never have the opportunity to do that outside of this program.”

The program wraps up May 1. The spring 2018 theme will focus on the relation between nature and culture in Britain with courses taught by Janet Fiskio, associate professor of environmental studies and comparative American studies, and T.S. McMillin, professor of English.

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