Wellcome Medal 2022

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It is our pleasure to announce that the Wellcome Medal for 2022 is awarded to Bharat Jayram Venkat for his monograph At the Limits of Cure.  This is a deeply researched, elegantly written and very cleverly constructed contemplation of the (in)curability of tuberculosis over the course of more than a century.  The aim is to unsettle our idea of cure by construing it less as a therapeutic outcome and more as an abiding object in our collective medical imaginary, a possibility first presented to Venkat during fieldwork in an HIV clinic in India.

There, he had observed the complex and near contradictory nature of cure as lived experience.  Patients with an incurable disease, HIV, were most frequently dying not from that, but from the curable disease, tuberculosis.  Pondering the dogged persistence of TB, including the emergence of strains described as “totally drug resistant”, Venkat was prompted to wonder if we might want to ask different questions, and so begin to think of cure otherwise, not least as something always limited, always to be surpassed, always a limited good.

Though the time span is roughly a century, stretching from the early twentieth century to the present, and though the chapters are roughly chronological, this is not a history of progress, nor is it a genealogy.  Instead it somewhat resembles a meditation, with each chapter shaped around a different element of cure (e.g., environment, location, travel, evidence, recurrence) and each containing illuminating, illustrative stories.  It is with the assemblage of these that the creativity of Venkat’s approach and the originality of his style are most in evidence.

Rather than stages in a linear argument, the chapters are like episodes in an ongoing tale.  They begin with one-page preludes.  Their titles, more evocative than explanatory, spring directly from the text.  Their opening scenes are sometimes from myth, sometimes from history, and are always engrossing gateways to thoughtful presentations woven through heterogenous arrays of sources.

Microhistories, biography, film, illness narratives, parliamentary debates, philosophy, letters, ethnographies are deftly woven together and given comparability of status as forms of knowledge.  Each has a place in its own social world, but together they support a chapter’s broader, more abstract point.  Venkat’s monograph is thus something of a meta-text, a kind of ethnology in/of history, so to speak.  It is an original and refreshing contribution to our thinking on a foundational topic in the anthropology and history of medicine.  Its cross-disciplinary reach, including South Asian studies, is also to be commended.