A matter of life and breath

by Jade Westerman, Exhibition Project Officer


Earlier this year, The Royal College of Physicians hosted the Catch Your Breath exhibition. Alongside the exhibition ran a full events programme of out-of-hours gallery and garden tours, dance and art workshops, and a singing performance, to name a few.

Members of the Life of Breath research project came together from Durham University and the University of Bristol to talk to the audience at RCP about the research they’ve been conducting for the past 5 years.

There is often a frustrating mismatch between the experience of breathlessness and measurements of lung function. Someone with objectively poor lung function may feel fine, whilst another may feel very unwell despite good test results. Why is that? Exploring this discrepancy is at the very core of the Life of Breath research project and the Catch Your Breath exhibition.

Chaired by Prof Jane Macnaughton, this event featured very brief presentations from the Life of Breath researchers, drawing on a range of different perspectives, including the lived experience of breathlessness, patient perceptions of healthcare, concepts of ‘normal’, and historical ideas about the connections between mind and body.

What makes medical humanities?

Professor Havi Carel

It’s normal, even healthy, to get breathless once in a while. So how can we characterise pathological breathlessness? Philosopher Professor Havi Carel considered this question, arguing that using the same term for both ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ breathlessness makes it more difficult for healthcare professionals to truly appreciate the difference.

A Matter of Life and Breath (Professor Havi Carel)

Dr James Dodd

Healthcare professionals often turn to quantitative techniques for assessing and measuring breathlessness. Respiratory consultant Dr James Dodd explored the limitations of these measures and why encouraging discussion of subjective experience might be the key to better treatment of unexplained and unmanageable breathlessness.​

A Matter of Life and Breath (Dr James Dodd)

Dr Alice Malpass

​How do those living with breathlessness engage with the language and descriptors which attempt to translate their personal, lived sensations into measurable symptoms? Anthropologist Dr Alice Malpass interrogated the assumptions underpinning the measurement of breathlessness which have historically prioritised clinical expertise over the wisdom of experience.​

A Matter of Life and Breath (Dr Alice Malpass)

​Dr Coreen McGuire

The drive to translate breathlessness into quantifiable measures has been influenced by complex interactions between medical expertise, industrial interests, and compensation schemes. Historian Dr Coreen McGuire delved into the stories of miners and women to highlight the significance of race, class, and gender in the evolution of spirometry during the 19th century.

A Matter of Life and Breath (Dr Coreen McGuire)

Professor Corinne Saunders

Breathing is a bodily function which can be consciously controlled, challenging the modern view that the mind and body are distinct and separate. Drawing on the writings of Chaucer and Margery Kempe, Professor Corinne Saunders examined the central role of breath in medieval physiology which assumed an intimate connection between mind, body, thoughts, and feelings.

A Matter of Life and Breath (Professor Corinne Saunders)

You can watch the full event here

A Matter of Life and Event (full event)

For those who prefer something more visual, artist Flora Laney-Hubbard created a digital sketch the talks based on her viewing of the event.

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