Tell the human stories of science

Colin Grant, Writer and Broadcaster

Tell the Human Stories of Science

I started as a medical student in the 1980s at the Royal London Hospital. Our way of looking was not to look around and see the architecture or the landscape but to continually think about life through the prism of pathology. We had no eye for architecture, art or landscape or theology and especially in the pre-clinical years when you were at medical school, you were stuffed with information. We were fed information like geese with no time to consider or process the information.

The dean told me I made a big mistake when I was in medical school and started writing play. This ‘mistake’ however led to my beginnings of an interest in literature, which I have been lucky to pursue ever since.

Many people have come to science through great populists like Oliver Sacks- I remember reading The man who mistook his wife for a hat and Hallucinations and was struck by the human side of these great stories. Although the gold standard in science and medicine may be longitudinal studies with huge numbers of people in the sample, I think what you learn best from is hearing these individual stories and extrapolating from those stories a general point.

That is certainly true of the feeling behind my book on epilepsy, A Smell of Burning. When you think about any kind of story, you have to articulate its narrative in a way that is going to appeal to people beyond their own immediate understanding. When I thought of the story of epilepsy I imagined its beginnings in a time 2,000 years ago. In that age if you were suspected of having given birth to a child that had epilepsy they would wash the child in wine. If the child convulsed then they would be taken away and destroyed.

When I pitched my book to the publishers I told them this terrible tale, highlighting its universal themes of prejudice, fate and death. By exploring such common themes our stories can appeal to everyone, regardless of their interest in science. What’s great about the current culture in which we live is that there’s many, many people who want to bridge the gap between science and the rest of society, and I think telling the human stories of science is the best way to do so.

Colin Grant is author of a number of books including Negro with a hat: the Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his dream of Mother Africa and more recently The Smell of Burning.  As well as an author, Colin Grant teaches creative non-fiction writing, most recently for Arvon and Sierra Nevada College

Grant is also a historian, Associate Fellow of the Centre for Caribbean Studies and producer for BBC Radio.  He joined the BBC in 1991, and has worked as a TV script editor and radio producer of arts and science programmes on radio 4 and the World Service.

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