What happens when you spend your childhood living “in an underground house, next to a graveyard, in abandoned coal lands…with a pet racoon?” If you’re Brandy Watts Schillace ’00, you become interested in science and medicine, history and literature, the peculiar and the bizarre – and merge your passions into a successful career.
Currently the editor-in-chief for BMJ’s Medical Humanities Journal, Schillace is a medical historian and public speaker who has written three books, including the critically acclaimed Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul. Her articles have appeared in Scientific American, SLATE, HuffPo, and WIRED. She’s also the host of the Peculiar Book Club, “esteemed home of the quirky, quizzical, curious, and bizarre,” which will host an online, pre-Halloween event at 7 p.m. EDT, Thursday, Oct. 28, with Frank Spotnitz, writer and producer for The X-Files.
Schillace recently took some time to explain how her childhood fueled her imagination and why her work at the intersections of science, history, medicine, and literature is important.
Wittenberg: How did you become interested in science history, and the “peculiar” and the “bizarre”? What keeps you interested in this subject matter?
Schillace: I grew up in an underground house, next to a graveyard, in abandoned coal lands… with a pet raccoon. Oddly, this tends not to surprise people as much as I think it will. My rural community skirted the poverty line, a place of failed industry and orange rivers, poor health, and poorer access to healthcare. As a result, I spent my childhood reading a lot about disease and going to a lot of funerals. But I also lived a great deal in my own imagination, and in an area of the country where folklore was as rich as any coal seam. I began to notice the way gothic tales intersected with issues of science, medicine, and social justice. I think we are taught to draw a line between fiction and fact, but fictive narratives are a wonderful way of examining the fears and hopes of eras past. I never lost my love of science and medicine, and pursued history of medicine as a career path. But I still feel that there are many intersecting paths between science fiction and science fact.
Wittenberg: Why is your work in science/medical history important and relevant?
Schillace: Science sometimes gets to the "we can" before the "should we?" I write history of science books for a general audience and work as a science communicator because the ethics of our actions are important – and because we cannot abdicate the responsibility for them "only" to scientific or medical professionals. We all should be interested in how and why (and on whom and for whom) we practice science and medicine. History can reveal so much to us about how to handle our current situations – from pandemics to the fallout from war. But most especially, such stories remind us of our common humanity.
Wittenberg: How have your Wittenberg experiences influenced your personal and/or professional endeavors?
Schillace: I first became interested in 18th-century literature in [Professor of English] Cynthia Richards’ class; I first became enamored of Victorian gothic under the tutelage of [Professor of English] Robin Inboden. The literature I read in Wittenberg's English department shaped what kind of questions I ultimately asked in my further studies – and still impact me today.
To learn more about Schillace, her work, and or to join the Peculiar Book Club, visit www.brandyschillace.com.