Writer, independent scholar, educator, speaker and curmudgeon: for over 20 years Susan Baxter (or “Doctor Sue” as students sometimes call her) has focused on deconstructing the complex underpinnings of health, medicine and science. Whether it’s translating the language of risk – in which health discourse is often presented – into normal English or explaining the background, history, metaphors and other influences that underpin our understanding of medicine, her work has consistently demystified the often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and increasingly authoritative health information out there. In the (delightfully flattering) words of a student, she’s like a “quirky encyclopedia” who is “not only interesting but has a way of making one learn and look at things in a broader perspective”.
Curiosity and the desire to better understand how disparate ideas evolve into what we think of as “facts” has always been the cornerstone of Susan’s work. She began her somewhat unorthodox career with a brief stint as a stand-up comic (as part of a duo, Idiot Proof); later she worked as a taxi driver, substitute teacher and then began writing professionally, initially as a comedy writer, then writing scripts, eventually moving to print where she’s more or less stayed ever since – blogging being the cyber equivalent of print. She has authored (and ghosted) several books; for her her last one, The Estrogen Errors; Why Progesterone is Better for Women’s Health (Praeger, 2009), she invited Vancouver endocrinologist Jerilynn Prior on board.
Susan’s background includes a BA in Psychology and a PhD in interdisciplinary studies but she is primarily a writer. Working at CBC’s TV Drama sparked her interest in writing and from there it was only a short jump towards a career in writing – initially creating comedy sketches and dramas for television (she is still a member of the Writer’s Guild of Canada) then journalism, books and a blog.
Scholar-in-Residence (2014-15) for the Canadian Association of Independent Scholars, Susan Baxter has taught various aspects of social health science at the Faculty of Health Science at Simon Fraser University since 2010 and also does the odd course at SFU’s Liberal Arts (Seniors) program. “We tend to forget just how much our understanding of medical science is affected by culture, commerce, politics – even our metaphors,” she says. “In my classes and lectures I help students deconstruct the notion of ‘normal’ and realize just how subjective this often is.”
Over the years the day-to-day research of a working, professional writer has taken her to all manner of (occasionally strange) places: she recalls dragging herself out of bed at 4 a.m. on an icy morning to to clamber onto a Greenpeace dinghy for a Maclean’s piece; waiting backstage with the Winnipeg Ballet’s Evelyn Hart one long afternoon and talking one of BC’s first heart transplant recipients. That interview, along with some other forays into medical writing, changed her focus to health/medicine where it seemed that all too often the story wasn’t about the messy details of patient care but on what the late media critic Neil Postman called the “magic” of medicine. That realization, along with the thousands of hours spent interviewing doctors, nurses, patients, social workers, policy wonks for diverse publications (Family Practice, Medical Post, You, Chatelaine, Health Watch, Psychology Today, etc.) resulted in her doctoral research Medicine, Metaphors and Metaphysics (now published by Scholar’s Press). A single, simple policy – restrictive formularies – became an interdisciplinary analysis of clinical medicine and health advice, including concepts from pharmacology, medical sociology/anthropology, health economics, bioethics, communications and history.
Susan Baxter lives in Vancouver, Canada where she continues to write and teach.