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 history, economics, politics, metaphors and other influences that underpin our understanding of medicine, her work has consistently demystified the often confusing, sometimes conflicting, and increasingly authoritative health advice we are given, ranging from diet and supplements to glucose levels and cholesterol. 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.”
Appointed Scholar-in-Residence by the Canadian Association of Independent Scholars in 2014, Susan Baxter has been a sessional prof at the Faculty of Health Science at Simon Fraser University for the last five years and has also taught for the Seniors Program. “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 culture, commerce, politics – even our metaphors – that I can help them approach the subject more critically,” she says. “Not to mention realize just how subjective our ideas of what is ‘normal’ in everything from blood pressure to glucose levels really is.”
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 doing stand-up comedy; later she worked as a taxi driver, substitute teacher and then began writing. First, as a comedy writer then writing scripts for for some CBC-TV shows. She then moved to print where she’s more or less stayed. For her last book Susan invited Vancouver endocrinologist Jerilynn C. Prior, MD, on board as co-author to write The Estrogen Errors; Why Progesterone is Better for Women’s Health (Praeger, 2009), a book intended for women at midlife.
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.
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; hanging out Molly’s Reach talking to “Old Rellic” (Robert Clothier) about Shakespeare on The Beachcombers set, not to mention bouncing on a wooden bench at Jericho Beach with a wild bunch of four-year-olds singing to Sharon, Lois and Bram. Ah, the glamorous life of a freelance writer.
While working as a medical journalist she began researching the history of medicine and related topics as all too often it seemed that what publications wanted (and readers expected) was only half the story. Interviews with hundreds of nurses, doctors, patients, social workers, policy wonks and others helped her realize just how complex physiology is; attending far too many medical conferences and CME’s (Continuing Medical Education seminars for physicians) got her to thinking about the reductionist slant of much of our medical thinking. During this time, as she wrote for magazines like Family Practice, Medical Post, You, Chatelaine, Health Watch, Psychology Today, etc., she began thinking of continuing this work at grad school.
After writing a book on the immune system (Immune Power, still out there somewhere) she began her doctoral research (Medicine, Metaphors and Metaphysics now published by Scholar’s Press) where 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 continues to write and teach. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia with her husband and two cats.