Writer, independent scholar, educator, speaker and curmudgeon: for over 20 years Susan Baxter (or “Dr B” as her students call her) has focused on deconstructing the complex underpinnings of health, medicine and science. Whether it’s translating the language of risk – in which our health is increasingly presented – into normal language or explaining the history, economics, politics, metaphors and other influences that go into our understanding of the medical narrative, her work has consistently demystified the often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and increasingly authoritative advice we are given in health and medicine. In the 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.”
Although first and foremost a writer, over the last two years Susan Baxter has done a fair bit of teaching; this she plans to continue, in between writing her next book and continuing her research. “One person can’t change the world but I’m hopeful that by helping individuals understand just how much our understanding of medical science is affected by other things, like society, culture, economics and politics, that I can help them approach the subject more critically,” she says.
Curiosity and the desire to better understand how things really work, and how they evolve into what we “know”, has always been the cornerstone of Susan’s work; they drew her to writing and journalism in the first place. Although she spent a few years writing (and performing) comedy in her misspent youth, and wrote a few television scripts, she found herself gravitating towards non-fiction and journalism. After many years of writing about everything from Alzheimer’s to X-rays, in typical fashion she decided she was bored and needed to embark on her own research.
In 2001, she went back to school to do her doctorate. By 2006, Susan had become an independent scholar and author. She invited Vancouver endocrinologist Jerilynn C. Prior, MD, on board for her last book, The Estrogen Errors; Why Progesterone is Better for Women’s Health (2009). The book continues to make a few waves.
Susan’s next project is an introductory text outlining the various points she tends to stress in her classes, from the history and politics of health science to the foundations of what we think of as medical “truth” post World War II and the Framingham Study – as her students, undergrads and seniors alike, have been urging her to do. The book should be out by late 2012 if all goes well.
Susan Baxter’s background includes a BA in Psychology and brief stints as a substitute teacher, taxi driver and standup comic. 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) and, eventually, to her current work in print.
The day-to-day research of a working, professional writer takes her to all manner of strange places, especially since Canadian writers rarely have the luxury of turning down a job. Baxter recalls dragging herself out of bed at 4 a.m. on an icy cold morning to meet a Greenpeace dinghy on the Fraser River at dawn; hanging around at Molly’s Reach talking about literature with “old Relic” (Robert Clothier) and sitting on a teeny bench on a cold Sunday morning belting out Sharon, Lois and Bram songs with a four-year-olds.
But her real interest ended up being health and medicine and throughout the ‘90’s her by-line appeared in various and sundry publications including Family Practice, Medical Post, Health Watch, Chatelaine, You and more. She attended hundreds of medical conferences and CME’s (Continuing Medical Education seminars for physicians) and spent countless hours interviewing patients, doctors and others.
Eventually, as she began to appreciate the complelxity of of physiology and the deep roots so-called scientific medicine has in history, economics, society and culture, her work changed; she wrote a book on the immune system and, eventually, a doctoral thesis (Medicine, Metaphors and Metaphysics), where a single, simple notion, restrictive formularies, was parsed through the interdisciplinary lens of clinical medicine, medical sociology/anthropology, health economics, bioethics, communications and history.
Today, as the sheer amount of medical information threatens to overwhelm even the most knowledgeable of us, her focus continues to be the inner workings of medicine and the interdisciplinary analysis of our understanding of health matters. As a writer, independent scholar, educator and speaker, Baxter spends her time sifting through medical texts and journals in an attempt to demystify the morass of medical advice we are subjected to as individuals.
Susan Baxter continues to offer her trans-disciplinary slant through her writing and teaching. Her next project is an introductory text for the “Foundations of Health Science” she has taught at SFU that will also serve as a guide for her students at the Seniors Program.