Ellen Storm

Writing the White and Purple Coats

Shaking hands with Robert Francis QC

First and Commended – Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine


Saturday 10th May 2014 was the 5th International Symposium on Poetry and Medicine, hosted by the Hippocrates Society. It was also the awards ceremony for the 2014 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, judged by poet Philip Gross, mumsnet.com editor Sarah Crown and barrister Robert Francis QC (who recently chaired the enquiry into Mid-Staffordshire Hospital).

My poem Out of Hospital Arrest was awarded the first prize in the NHS category, and my poem Walk (about dementia and the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS)) was also commended in the NHS category.

Shaking hands with Robert Francis QC

With Robert Francis QC

The day started with refreshments and registration at the Royal Society of Medicine in Wimpole Street at 08:30 on Saturday morning, so was not for the tired-after-a-long-week or the faint-hearted! We travelled down to stay with family in Hertfordshire the night before, and I was up at 6am to make it into central London by nine.

The day finished when the staff at our dinner venue turned all the lights on and stood around looking expectant as the clock approached midnight and several of us were still deep in conversation. I finally made it to bed by 2am, without jumping for joy on my sister-in-law’s trampoline, as one person has suggested I should have done! It’s probably a good thing, as trampoline injuries are a common cause of presentation to Accident and Emergency…

As it was last year, the event was a fascinating collection of presentations and readings, along with a good deal of socialising in great company. The venue was ideal and they even made me a special lunch when I couldn’t eat the special lunch they had prepared earlier, so a big thumbs-up to the catering team 🙂


The symposium kicked off with organiser Michael Hulse discussing the Romantic ego in medical poetry – something that is becoming rarer in poetry elsewhere. He also offered to us for discussion a framework for considering “medical” poetry, classifying poems into primary, secondary and tertiary categories. To be classified as a medical poem it is not enough to have ageing or death as your subject, he added.

Primary poems, he suggested, might be considered to be those written from the perspective of the patient or disease-sufferer. These poems are typically written in the first person, and the foregrounding of self that occurs is similar to that found in romantic poetry (such as was written by Wordsworth or Keats). Here the self is of central, compelling importance: therefore primary medical poetry, in some ways like “confessional” poetry more generally, can be considered the poetry of the self in extremis. My 2013 commended poem Artificial Rupture of Membranes falls into this category.

Secondary poems record the experience of the patient from an intimate observing perspective. These poems are generally compassionate but lack the interior experience of primary poems. My poem Walk falls into this category.

Tertiary poems seemed to constitute more of a mixed bag, including those poems written by healthcare practitioners or from a detached perspective, and covering topics such as ethics, techniques, equipment and theories. My poem Out of Hospital Arrest falls into this category.


Next up was Sandy Goldbeck-Wood, author of the commended poem Mess, who spoke about the role of embodied story in poetry and medicine. In particular she recounted a case-story from her work in psychosexual medicine, to illustrate how the social environment, such as experienced unfairness, affects the body (and also how epigenetics is beginning to demonstrate that lived experience affects genetic expression without altering the DNA sequence). She referenced the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, which looked at experiences of abuse, neglect and family dysfunction and found that certain experiences are major risk factors for the leading causes of illness and death in the US, and highlighted the importance of story in helping with these kinds of problems. She discussed her PhD project in which she conducted a qualitative analysis of story in psychosexual cases, and related this to the ability of poetry to “show what cannot be told”. Academic medicine, she said, needs to grow out of its empirical monoculture. Poetry, she said, is almost for when we don’t have words.


To be continued (perhaps)…

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