My friends, it’s been pretty serious around here lately. Sorry about that. It’s been a bit tough to muster an irreverent tone or even some room for levity these days, for reasons that I’m sure are pretty obvious. But the world is a big and complicated place, and being all serious all the time can get overwhelming and kind of grating, so I’d like to take a moment to talk about Sawbones, the medical history podcast I’m currently besotted with.
First of all, I have to acknowledge that I am on the record as ‘not being a podcast person,’ but that changed around mid-2016, when I was doing a lot of driving and flying and found that listening to podcasts is a really excellent way to make that more enjoyable. I went from only listening to Night Vale to having a whole host of things I listen to and enjoy, so, you know, appreciation for media formats can change.
But Sawbones, right? If you’re not already listening to it, I think you should give it a go, because this medical history podcast hosted by Dr. Sydnee and Justin McElroy is really, really funny. It’s also informative. And it’s thoughtful. And I’m pretty choosy about comedy, so I only recommend funny things after careful consideration and evaluation. I can’t guarantee the humour will be to your taste, but I will say that I find it to mine.
Sydnee and Justin have a really great rapport (one would hope, since they’re married), that really plays well for this series, in which each episode examines a phenomenon of historical and/or social interest. Early on in the show, they focused on the weird things people used to do because they thought it was a good idea. (Radium water, anyone?) As the show has evolved, they’ve started looking more generally at the history of various treatments, diseases, and so on, including things people experience in the contemporary era.
I love that they manage to bring levity without punching down, that topics are funny but not at the expense of actual (living) humans. I also appreciate that when it comes time to talk about bunkum, ridiculous, and outright dangerous ‘alternative medicine,’ they keep things clinical and thoughtful and science-based, and don’t typically make a big production out of shaming people or making them feel bad for doing something that isn’t the greatest idea. The exception to that is the vaccine episodes, in which they unapologetically and categorically condemn people who refuse vaccinations, as well they should, because the stakes are too high for sheltering precious feelings.
Sometimes there are a few inaccuracies or misstatements, but I do think they do an excellent job of researching and digging in on things, and there’s some sensitivity and caution around a lot of issues as well — for example, in one episode Justin talks about all women having uteruses, and Sydnee corrects him to note that this isn’t actually true, as some women are born without them. They’re pretty good about straying away from gender essentialism and trying to be thoughtful about how they handle gender issues, and they repeatedly discuss the history of race and medicine, with a particular eye to racist research, beliefs, and practices.
Oddly, one of my favourite episodes isn’t actually a medical history episode, but a special edition they did for the birth of their daughter, which didn’t go quite as they planned or expected. A lot of attitudes surround childbirth in the United States, and sharing their story frankly was really interesting for me as a reader, but I also hope it connected with a lot of parents who might feel shame or frustration at not having a picture-perfect birth. Their conversation was also a great reminder that you really don’t know what to expect, and that preparing for the possibility of spending some time in the NICU is a good idea — if your preparations aren’t needed, awesome. If they are, you’re not floundering at a time when you want to be concentrating on recovering from a birth and caring for your child.
This is not, in other words, a purely funny podcast: It’s humour and comedy, but it comes with a sharp look at society and the way we think, without getting too heavy. Sydnee often discusses the problems with the medical profession, breaking down the infallible white coat stereotype and encouraging listeners to be proactive, informed patients, providing them with information they can use to interact with their care providers. (Though the disclaimer does advise us, of course, that we aren’t receiving medical information or advice.) Justin, playing the role of ill-informed doofus, has a great way of gently raising issues that people might genuinely be too shy to ask about, fearing that people will make fun of them for being ‘ignorant.’
I’ve learned a ton about medical history from Sawbones, and had a few of my own beliefs debunked, which is always enjoyable. There’s so much fascinating stuff to explore with medical history, including memes that come up again and again, but don’t actually reflect their source material with any degree of accuracy. I feel like I’m coming up with reams of things that will spark interesting conversations and give me insight into medical practices that feel arcane or weird — sometimes they are, and now I know why.
If you’re interested in medical history or practice at all, I really can’t recommend Sawbones enough. It’s humourous, but also very human, and personal, and I’m really enjoying the process of steadily working through their formidable backlog of episodes.
Image: Caduceus, Hank Word, Flickr