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Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine (IBME)

European Cultures of Palliative Care

Villa Hatt, University of Zurich and ETH, 25-26 October 2019

Palliative care, recognised as a medical subspecialty and first defined by the World Health Organization in 1990 as a holistic approach specific to cancer pain relief, has since then become the paradigmatic end-of-life care modality for advanced terminal diseases in Western medicine.

This workshop contextualizes the meaning of ‘palliative’ within European literature and culture since the 1970s, when reports about the work of Cicely Saunders - the founder of modern palliative care - gave the impetus to reform the ways in which national healthcare systems approached terminal disease in Europe and beyond. 

Mortality in its many guises, either as the abstract horizon of our lives constituted by death, or as the actual experience of dying – both of others and ourselves – has always been at the heart of literary texts. In recent years, autobiographies about dying, written by terminal patients, their families and caregivers, have proliferated, and in these texts dying is without exception presented as a medicalized experience. They thereby offer intimate perspectives on the pressure that technological advances put on the care of the terminally ill and the ways in which medical progress has come to shape and streamline dying – even in palliative care settings. They also raise awareness for the local histories and contexts in which specific approaches to palliative care were developed.

This workshop focuses on narratives of illness and dying written since the 1970s, as well as photographic and documentary work torn between the idealization and devaluation of palliative care. It questions the aesthetic mediations of key concepts associated with palliative care, such as pain control, care instead of cure, the integration of the family, an individually defined quality of life and the spiritual and psychological accompaniment of the patient. By considering palliative care’s reception in European literature and culture, the workshop aims to provide a more nuanced understanding of some of the local challenges of modern palliative care and their philosophical and cultural assumptions about what constitutes a ‘good death’.

Papers will be presented from a range of disciplinary fields associated with the Medical Humanities and will include, but are not limited to, the following kinds of emphasis:

  • Medicalization/Demedicalization of dying
  • Gender and Care
  • Euthanasia
  • End-of-life writing as a palliative praxis and a historical source
  • Sociocultural contexts of end-of-life memoirs
  • Documentary truth-telling and palliative ideology
  • The relationship between the individual and society
  • Autonomy, Family, Personhood
  • The ‘good death’
  • Total Pain / Total Care
  • Technologies and treatments
  • Doctor / patient writers
  • National healthcare systems
  • Conflicting feelings and emotions
  • The lives of institutions, places and objects

Please email proposals of 250 words for 20-minute papers to the workshop organiser, Dr Anna Elsner, by 30 June 2019. This workshop is generously sponsored by Swissuniversities and Swiss National Science Foundation.

Flyer for the Workshop: Download (PDF, 1 MB)

Weiterführende Informationen


Villa Hatt

Freudenbergstrasse 112, 

8044 Zürich


25-26 October 2019