Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth is a British physician with a fascination for parasites and other loathsome creatures. She has led expeditions to Peru and Madagascar and has done a dozen high altitude treks in Nepal with her children from the age of four months. She has lived in Asia for eleven years, working on various health projects. Currently she works as a general practitioner in England.
How did you get started traveling? Has it gone hand-in-hand with your medicine career, or is it an independent pursuit?
It was my passion for natural history and my enthusiasm for caving that got me traveling. In 1976 I led an expedition to the Himalayan region to explore caves in Pakistan, India and Nepal and part of the mission was to study the animals that lived underground. I also did some work on parasites of bats with the idea of studying rabies transmission. That trip made me realize how important health education and basic medical care is to the people of developing nations and while I was in Nepal I resolved to start working on control of disease. It was only later that I entered medical school and qualified as a doctor of medicine.
How did you get started writing about travel and travel health?
I wrote a few articles send by mail from Asia during that 1976 trip for my local newspaper and they were well received, and my writing became more ambitious as my trips became more adventurous and I have more adventures to relate. I led an expedition to Madagascar in 1986 and started writing about this trip, not thinking I was ever likely to find a publisher, but it was published as ‘Lemurs of the Lost World: exploring the forests and Crocodile Caves of Madagascar’ by Impact, London in 1990 with a second edition in 1995.
What do you consider your first “break” in writing about travel and travel health?
This came in 1993 when I was speaking about travel health at the Royal Geographical Society. In the audience were the publishers of the now very successful Wanderlust magazine for whom I have produced 50 1500-word travel health pieces over the last eight years, and also a literary agent was there. She took a look at my Madagascar book, decided that I could write and proposed I wrote an accessible guide to travel health. This was first published by Cadogan, London as ‘Bugs Bites & Bowels’ in 1995. It appeared in a third edition this year.
As a traveler and fact-gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?’
I don’t have enough time to travel for as long or as often as perhaps I should. That is perhaps mainly a self-imposed limit because I enjoy spending time with my family and traveling with them – as I now do mostly – is in itself limiting. I also find that my clinical self can be at odds with my writer-self. Do I stop to help and cure people or record without interfering? My biggest frustration is not being a better linguist. I love being able to ask people why they are doing things, and took this for granted while we were living in Nepal (for six years) and Indonesia (for two years). Now on shorter-term travel, even within Europe, I find I cannot gossip with locals as I’d like.
What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?
Time. I have two children and a home to run, two part-time clinical jobs, I teach on travel health often, write regularly for magazines, have books to update, I’m currently organizing a travel health conference and I find it difficult to allot enough time to anything! I am also aware that to produce good useful empowering travel health material I should underplay scary stories, yet to sell my work some good horrifying tales make ‘better’ journalism. I am ambivalent, therefore, about how much to scare my reader….. I am also asked to write similar material often and fear that might writing could easily become stale with too much repetition. It is a challenge to cover all the useful, important facts while still keeping my work fresh.
Is writing a big part of your career, or is it pretty much a sideline to medicine?
It is a sideline as far as income goes. It is one part of my work that I enjoy but I couldn’t live off the income alone.
Do you read travel books? What travel authors or books do you enjoy or might you recommend?
I love to read when I have time. I loath authors who are dishonest or exaggerate and love the honest and the humorous and those who really so their research carefully. I admire Eric Newby for his understatements and I love Redmond O’Hanlon for his humor, ability to laugh at himself and his passion and knowledge of natural history. I enjoy wordsmiths who can transport me. I am currently reading The Poisonwood Bible. Wild Swans is another marvelous book. I get bored with self-analytical books and navel-gazers.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who wants to write about travel or travel health?
It won’t make you rich.
What is the biggest reward of your travel writing pursuits?
Just hearing people say that they enjoyed my writing or it helped them through a difficult patch, or saved them when taken ill overseas.
- Lemurs of the Lost World: exploring the forests and Crocodile Caves of Madagascar by Impact, London 1995. Available for $10 from PO Box 1135, Great Falls, Virginia 22066 or £5 from 33 Hartington Grove, Cambridge CB1 7UA, UK
- Bugs Bites & Bowels: travel health. Cadogan, London and Globe Pequot 2002 www.cadoganguides.com
- Your Child’s Health Abroad: a manual for traveling parents. Bradt and Globe Pequot 1998 www.bradt-travelguides.com
- Shitting Pretty: how to stay clean and healthy while traveling. Travelers’ Tales, San Francisco, 134pp, April 2000 www.travelerstales.com; published in Dutch in 2001 as Buikloop, Busreizen en Bloedzuigers and also translated into Spanish in 2001 as Salud y viajes