A post in which I defend Art Historians against criticisms of uselessness
Back in January of this year I had an embarrassing experience. I was picked up, after filming, about 8.30 in the evening, by a mini-cab from St George’s Hospital in Tooting, on my way home after a long day. (I think we had started at 7am at Westminster Abbey.)
I was clearly a bit tired, and my cab had been booked in the name of ‘Dr Worsley’. (The BBC love calling me ‘Dr Worsley’, but I promise you that I don’t call myself a doctor in normal life! Nothing could be further from the truth … actually I find it a bit embarrassing.)
Anyway, the cab driver was very nice, and very chatty, and was soon telling me how much he admired me. ‘You doctors,’ he said, ‘saved my life’. He then began to tell me all about his symptoms, and his operation, and how his life had been saved.
I quickly realized that circumstances had conspired against me. He had picked up a rather tired-looking ‘Dr’ Worsley from a hospital in the evening … he thought I was a USEFUL doctor, the sort who might actually be able to save lives.
I’m ashamed to say that, sleepy as I was, I didn’t correct him.
In fact, I took the easy way out. Instead of taking the honest, full-disclosure, open approach … I did the opposite. I pretended to fall asleep. And in no time at all, I did in fact genuinely fall asleep.
Anway, I got to thinking (if this blog were an episode of ‘Sex in the City’, you would now see Carrie’s fingers typing on her Mac), should I be ashamed of being such a ‘useless’ sort of doctor?
And, after reflection, I think, on balance, not.
We’d been filming at St George’s Hospital to cover the very exciting and interesting research of a team led by Dr Peter Garrard, who have concluded, by the analysis of his written output, that George III was, after all, suffering from a psychiatric illness, rather than the modish malady to which he is so chalked up: the physical metabolic blood disorder called porphyria.
Dr Garrard (a REAL medical doctor!) and team have proved, to my satisfaction at least, that George III’s written letters from the periods of his mysterious ‘illness’ show all the signs of a person experiencing the manic phase of a mood disorder: long sentences, repetitiveness, unusual vocabulary. As Dr Garrard says, ‘the porphyria theory is completely dead in the water. This was a psychiatric illness’.
The reason that I’m going on about all this is that I was recently with a group of friends who are art historians working in universities. They seemed, on the whole, to be very gloomy, facing financial cutbacks, redundancies, loss of morale: you name it, they had it. Science, they said, got all the money. We can’t complete, they said, with the business of saving lives.
‘Why don’t you make the case’, I harangued them, ‘for the value of your discipline? You may not save lives, but you contribute immeasurably to the pleasure and quality of lives that have been saved’.
They looked at me with sad faces. The morning after my embarrassing cab ride, I realized that I had made the same mistake that they had. I had assumed that just because others do indeed save lives, my work is valueless.
This is not the case.
My work that day had been aimed at giving visibility to the work of a research team who have proved that a widely-respected and valued leader of the nation – George III – could do his job (because he is widely recognized as an effective king) even with a psychiatric illness.
I think that, in its own small way, is valuable. If anyone, as a result of our programme tonight, which features Dr Garrard’s research, thinks again about their family member, or acquaintance, or work colleague with some sort of psychiatric malady, then that’s a positive result – even for the mildly ‘useless’ art historian.