A matter of life and breath
Royal College of Physicians
Illustration by Jordan Collver

A Matter of Life and Breath

Thursday 11 July, 6-7.30pm

There is often a frustrating mismatch between the experience of breathlessness and measurements of lung function. Someone with objectively poor lung function may feel fine, whilst another may feel very unwell despite good test results. Why is that? Exploring this discrepancy is at the very core of the Life of Breath  research project and the Catch your Breath exhibition. This event will feature very brief presentations from Life of Breath researchers, drawing on a range of different perspectives, including the lived experience of breathlessness, patient accounts of healthcare, concepts of ‘normal’ and historical ideas about the connections between mind and body. The presentations will be followed by a panel discussion and the opportunity for audience questions. Refreshments will be provided. 

Programme: TBC

Book tickets


Jane McNaughton leads Life of Breath at Durham University. She is Professor of Medical Humanities at Durham University and Director of the University’s Institute for Medical Humanities. Jane has published in the fields of medical education, medical humanities, literature and medicine, history of medicine and health care environments, and was a founder member of the Association for Medical Humanities.

Prof Havi Carel leads Life of Breath at the University of Bristol. She is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol, where she also teaches medical students. Her research examines the experience of illness and of receiving healthcare. Havi has a particular interest in augmenting the naturalistic approach to illness with a phenomenological perspective to improve our understanding of the experience of illness, enhance communication between healthcare practitioners and patients and identify focused interventions.

Dr James Dodd is a Consultant Senior Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine at the Academic Respiratory Unit, University of Bristol. His research focuses on the multi-system impact of lung disease and he is currently undertaking neuroimaging studies of brain pathology and cognitive function in patients with COPD. His clinical work is at Southmead Hospital, Bristol, where he has responsibility for the care of patients with complex COPD and asthma.

Dr Alice Malpass is a mid-career NIHR research fellow within Bristol Medical School. Her research has focused upon mindfulness based cognitive therapy for a range of health issues, including people living with COPD or asthma. With a doctorate in anthropology, Alice uses a variety of qualitative methods (cognitive interviewing, in depth interviews and ethnographic observation). 

Dr Coreen McGuire, (History, University of Bristol) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy. Her work for the Life of Breath project focuses on the historical use of the spirometer in measuring and assessing lung capacity, and its role in creating a definition of COPD. 

Prof Corinne Saunders, is Professor in the Department of English Studies and Co-Director of the Institute for Medical Humanities. She specialises in medieval literature and the history of ideas, and has particular interests in romance writing, gender studies and the history of medicine. She and Jane Macnaughton have co-edited works on the cultural history of the body and illness.


Catch your breath

Drawing on art, philosophy, anthropology, medical history and literature, this new exhibition combines research from the Life of Breath project with artist commissions and objects from the RCP collections and beyond, to show that breathing is so much more than a bodily function.

Catch your breath reflects on the ways people experience breath and breathlessness and how doctors have diagnosed and treated the diseases which cause the symptom. Working with artists, patients and doctors, we hope to raise awareness of breathlessness and to tackle the stigma that surrounds it.

This is a collaborative exhibition developed in partnership with Culture Durham, the Palace Green Library, the Life of Breath Project and University of Bristol. The Life of Breath project is supported by the Wellcome Trust.


Open Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm.  Check planned closure days before your visit. Museum Lates take place on the first Thursday of the month, 5–8pm. No booking required. For groups of six or more please email us in advance to arrange your visit.

Already visited the exhibition? Let us know your thoughts via our online survey.

Life of Breath

Life of Breath  is a five year (2015-20) research project funded by the Wellcome Trust. It is led jointly by Prof Jane Macnaughton (Durham University) and Prof Havi Carel (University of Bristol). The Life of Breath team includes researchers from a number of different subjects including medicine, philosophy, anthropology, history, arts and literature. We also work with the British Lung Foundation, people affected by lung disease, healthcare professionals and people who use their breath in interesting ways.