Fay Bound Alberti, University of York
About face: The affective and cultural history of face transplants.
As a cultural historian, Fay has published extensively on the histories of emotion, medicine and the body, including cosmetic and facial surgery, transplantation, identity, gender and mental health. Fay was also a founding member of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. Fay’s recent books include Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine and Emotion (2010), This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (2016) and A Biography of Loneliness: The History of an Emotion (2019). For the past decade Fay has built a freelance writing career outside of academia, while developing skills in other fields: managing large-scale humanities and ethics funding for the Wellcome Trust and Arcadia Fund, developing interdisciplinary, international research programmes, and advising organisations on impact and engagement.
This fellowship will enable Fay to return to academia to lead a major interdisciplinary research programme with wide-ranging societal, scientific and ethical impacts. Working in the US, UK and China with extended surgical teams, transplant recipients, donor families, ethicists, artists and innovators, this pathbreaking study will explore the cultural and emotional history of face transplants, a relatively new and increasingly prevalent form of surgery which has yet to take place in the UK. Drawing on Fay’s expertise in emotion history and combining approaches from anthropology, sociology, literary theory and medical ethics, Fay’s research will chart the emergence of facial transplantation surgery since 2005, while providing much-needed analyses of social, ethical and emotional contexts. Attitudes to facial transplantation, it will be shown, reflect historical, emotional concerns about identity and the face as much as scientific and medical priorities, so an interdisciplinary approach is key.
By exploring the historical emergence of facial transplantation surgery, its emotional meanings for patients, families and extended surgical teams, as well as its portrayal in policy debates, works of fiction and media coverage, Fay’s project will offer crucial insights into how face transplants have evolved as a necessary, yet controversial response to severe facial disfigurement. Through Anglo-American comparison and work with key institutions and policy makers, this project will also inform discussions around the viability of face transplants in the UK. Against a backdrop of intense cultural interest in the face and its links with identity, heritage, authenticity and personhood, this project raises critical questions not only about the ethics and limits of surgical innovation, but also the meanings of embodied identity in the early 21st century.