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A Matter of Life and Breath

Thu 11 Jul 2019 @ 6:00 PM - 7:30 PM


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 will feature very brief presentations (outlined below) from 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. The presentations will be followed by a panel discussion and the opportunity for audience questions. Refreshments will be provided.



    • 6.05-6.10pm – Introduction (Prof Jane Macnaughton)
    • 6.10-6.40pm – Provocations from the Life of Breath research team
    • 6.40-7.00pm – Discussion between panel members
    • 7.00-7.30pm – Q&A with audience




It’s normal, even healthy, to get breathless once in a while. So how can we characterise pathological breathlessness? Philosopher Prof Havi Carel will consider 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.

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

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 will interrogate the assumptions underpinning the measurement of breathlessness which have historically prioritised clinical expertise over the wisdom of experience.

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 will delve into the stories of miners and women to highlight the significance of race, class, and gender in the evolution of spirometry during the Twentieth Century.

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, Prof Corinne Saunders will examine the central role of breath in medieval physiology which assumed an intimate connection between mind, body, thoughts and feelings.


Tickets for this event are free. However, places are limited, so please ensure that you’ve booked a place to avoid disappointment. Tickets are available via the Royal College of Physicians Eventbrite page.


Royal College of Physicians
11 St Andrews Place, Regent's Park
London, NW1 4LE United Kingdom
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+44 (0)20 3075 1649