UCL News


Obituary for Dr Cecil Helman

22 June 2009

Dr Cecil Helman, Senior Lecturer in the UCL Research Department of Primary Care & Population Health died peacefully at the Royal Free Hospital on 15th June 2009 following a rapid deterioration of recently diagnosed motor neurone disease.

Cecil was born in Cape Town in 1944 and qualified there as a doctor in 1967. He left South Africa in the early 70s and set out upon his career as an NHS general practitioner in London. Informed and inspired by working on "medicine's frontline" with patients from so many different backgrounds and cultures, his interest grew in the humanistic side of medicine, especially the role of stories and narratives, and what they reveal about the inner world of both doctor and patient. He took a Postgraduate Diploma in Social Anthropology at UCL in 1972, and after a Fellowship in Social Medicine & Health Policy at Harvard Medical School in 1982-3, he returned to UCL to take up a part-time position as Senior Lecturer in Primary Care.

As a result of his teaching, writing and research, Cecil achieved international renown as one of the foremost experts on medical anthropology, the cross-cultural study of health, illness and medical care. His book, Culture, Health and Illness, first published in 1984 has gone to five editions and remains the standard text in this field, used in medical and nursing colleges in over 40 different countries. He published numerous papers in leading medical journals, including The Lancet, British Medical Journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, British Journal of General Practice, and Medical Humanities. On both sides of the Atlantic he was honoured by prestigious prizes and awards including:

• Career Achievement Award of the American Anthropological Association's Society for Medical Anthropology 2004

• The Lucy Mair Medal for Applied Anthropology 2005. Presented by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland "to recognise outstanding achievement in the application of anthropology to human wellbeing"

•The George Abercrombie Award 2008, presented by the Royal College of General Practitioners "for outstanding contribution to the literature of general practice".

His recent memoir Suburban Shaman: Tales from Medicine's Frontline, was described by Oliver Sacks as 'a beautifully written, devastatingly honest, and often very funny, account of an audacious and adventurous life'. It received widespread critical acclaim and was selected by the BBC as a Book of the Week and serialised on BBC Radio 4 in March 2006. It also won the UK Medical Journalists' Association 2007 Open Book Award.

As well as being widely remembered for his remarkable contributions as a devoted family doctor, medical anthropologist, teacher, author and poet, Cecil will be sorely missed as a friend and colleague by all those who worked with him at UCL.