Suburban Shaman

Cecil Helman

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'To be a good doctor you have to be a compassionate chameleon, a shape shifter – a shaman. Even if your adaptation to your patients' world happens at an unconscious level you should always work within their system of ideas, never against it…' So writes Cecil Helman…

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‘Medicine is not just about science. It’s also all about stories, and about the mingling of narratives among doctors, and between them and their patients.’ So writes Cecil Helman after 27 years as a family practitioner in and around London interlaced with training and research as a medical anthropologist, comparing a wide variety of medical systems and other forms of healing. This unique combination of frontline health worker and detached academic informs the many stories that make up this fascinating book. It also informs the author’s insights into what human suffering can teach us about ourselves and our own attitudes to health and illness, whether we are deliverers or recipients of health care. With insight and compassion, Dr Helman’s stories take the reader on a journey from apartheid South Africa, where he did his medical training, to the London of the early 1970s, where for a short time he foreswore medicine to become an anthropologist and poet; from ship’s doctor on a Mediterranean cruise to family practitioner in London; from observing curative trance dances in the favelas of Brazil to interviewing sangomas in South Africa. While trained in the Western tradition and with many years of practice in that system, Dr Helman’s anthropological insight leads him to view illness in a wider personal, social and cultural context, considering elements beyond the purely physical. In pleading for this holistic approach he celebrates family medicine which ‘in its quiet and unassuming way, and every day of the week, is still at the very frontline of human suffering’.

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About the author

Dr Cecil Helman was born in Cape Town, South Africa, into a family of doctors and artists. He studied medicine there during the apartheid era before moving to the UK, where he studied anthropology at University College London. After a spell as a ship’s doctor, he became a family practitioner in London while also developing a distinguished academic career, focusing on the cross-cultural study of health, illness and medical care – a specialism he largely established. He was a Visiting Fellow in Social Medicine and Health Policy at Harvard Medical School and a Visiting Professor in the Multi-cultural Health Programme at the University of New South Wales. He retired from clinical practice in 2002 but continued his academic work, being Professor of Medical Anthropology at Brunel University and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Primary Care & Population Sciences, Royal Free & University College Medical School, London, UK until his death in 2009. His leading textbook, Culture,Health and Illness is now in its fifth edition, published by CRC Press, and has been translated into many other languages. In addition to his academic achievements, Cecil was a talented writer of stories, prose poems and essays. The autobiographical Suburban Shaman was published in 2009 to great acclaim. For it he won the Royal College of General Practitioners’ Abercrombie medal ‘for an outstanding contribution to the literature of general practice’ and the Book of the Year award from the Society of Medical Writers in 2007. An Amazing Murmur of the Heart is published posthumously, following his death from motor neurone disease in June 2009.

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